'Finding Yingying': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
'Finding Yingying'
Intimate and haunting.

A first-time filmmaker examines a well-publicized crime through a personal lens.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Just weeks after arriving in the United States, a 26-year-old visiting scholar from a small city in southern China disappeared from her Illinois campus. Two years later, in the summer of 2019, her suspected kidnapper went on trial. Finding Yingying traces those two years from the anguished perspective of the young woman's family, fiancé and friends — and from the point of view of director Jiayan "Jenny" Shi, who didn't know Yingying Zhang but whose identification with her lends the documentary its thoughtful and haunting tone.

Exploring stateside events that were major news in China, Shi's film — which received a special SXSW jury prize for breakthrough voice — is a sensitively told true-crime story. It's much more than that too, grappling with matters of tradition, ambition, familial bonds and cultural disparities, and peering through the wider lens of the global economy, and the revenue that 300,000-plus Chinese students bring to U.S. colleges every year. During the events chronicled in this compelling film, one of the largest concentrations of those students was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Zhang researched the effects of climate change on crops and dreamt of life as an "academic mogul" and a mother, before she got in the wrong stranger's car.

Like Zhang, the filmmaker attended Peking University and eventually moved to Illinois. She was a journalism student there in June 2017 when she heard of Zhang's disappearance, and became one of many volunteers involved in the search for her. She also began chronicling that search from the point of view of the Zhangs, working people who made the long trip to a country where they didn't speak the language and embarked on a hopeful but guarded "needle in the ocean" quest to find Yingying.

At key points in her fluent mix of talking-head interviews, drone footage, surveillance video and family photos, the director overlays excerpts from Zhang's handwritten diaries. She reads these excerpts, translated into English — a voiceover narration that underscores the kinship she feels. "You look like my daughter," Zhang's mother tells Shi, her gaze burning with gratitude but also a grief so crushing it's almost accusatory.

Shi shares a few pertinent details about herself that make the parallels between the two young women clear. Beneath the straightforward surface, they're also tangled and complex. Many people might identify with such a story: to be the first college graduate in your family, to aim beyond the workaday realities of your parents and to feel responsible for taking care of them. Envisioning horizons far beyond her hometown of Nanping, in southern China, Zhang hung a map of the world in her childhood bedroom. "She thinks about things we never could have thought about," notes her truck-driver father, a man of quiet determination.

Zhang isn't reduced to mere victim; her diligence, drive and vulnerability come through loud and clear. Her writing reveals a vibrant intelligence and curiosity, as well as a self-regimentation that could be intense — perhaps, at times, to a fault. The ache of loneliness courses through all the hard work and big plans, the loneliness of someone who's on her own in a foreign country.

Finding Yingying is also a deft portrait of a family on the razor's edge between hope and dread — precarious emotional terrain that the superb score, by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero, ably expresses. "If she were dead, she would visit me in my dreams," Zhang's maternal aunt says with certainty early in the search. But Yingying's boyfriend of eight years admits to having a bad feeling, even as he, with his facility in English, leads the charge in rallying the local community to keep looking for his would-be wife.

The unfolding investigation is presented with a level of suspense that's involving and never exploitive (the fine editing is by John Farbrother). During the long delay between the suspect's arrest and the trial, Shi visits the Zhangs in Nanping and finds an inconsolable mother, a father struggling with guilt, a severely strained marriage and a heartbroken younger brother. The vagaries and machinations of the American legal system baffle and anger the Zhangs, and the trial itself brings harrowing revelations.

Besides being an agile storyteller, Shi, who shared DP duties with Shilin Sun, has a strong eye. She crafts potent visuals without the slightest showiness, whether capturing moments of tenderness or raging despair, or examining existing footage to highlight chilling details. Her access to the family makes for remarkable scenes, including an encounter that would feel like impossibly heavy symbolism in a work of fiction: Just outside a dormitory where his beloved once lived, Zhang's boyfriend finds a badly injured bird. He does what he can to quiet its suffering, and Shi regards his response with a searching openness. Closely but not intrusively observed, like the film as a whole, the incident encapsulates the larger story with eerie perfection and a shiver of the unknown.

Production companies: Kartemquin Films in association with Mitten Media and NiKA Media
Director: Jiayan "Jenny" Shi
Producers: Brent E. Huffman, Diane Quon, Jiayan "Jenny" Shi
Executive producers: Mark Mitten, Ken Pelletier, Jolene Pinder, Gordon Quinn
Cinematography: Jiayan "Jenny" Shi, Shilin Sun
Editor: John Farbrother
Music: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero
Sales: CAA, Submarine

99 minutes