Yingying Zhang, like many Chinese students, came to the United States for educational opportunity—in her particular case, to conduct crop science research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before applying to graduate school, with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor in China. She was a top student in China, and took her work just as seriously in the United States, as shown in a diary in which she recorded her daily schedule. But she also found time to have fun, enjoying the chance to travel in the Midwest, and seemed to be well on her way to a successful career in as a scientist and professor.
Then, only six weeks after arriving in the United States, she disappeared. The last trace of Yingying was a text message on June 9, 2017 to an apartment manager that should would be later to an appointment, after which time she seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. What happened to Yingying, and how the truth was discovered, is the subject of Finding Yingying, a true-crime documentary by Jenny Shi, who helped in the search process and recorded parts of it as it was happening. Shi also reads excerpts from Yingying’s diary on the soundtrack, helping to create a portrait of a young woman who had everything to live for.
Yingying’s boyfriend and members of her family came to the United States to help look for her, and her fellow students and colleagues got involved in the search, as did two self-proclaimed psychics. The local police proved instrumental to solving the case, aided by footage from the many security cameras on the UIC campus. The question of what happened to Yingying has been solved, but the outcome is not the only point—Finding Yingying is all about the process, both of solving the crime, and of dealing with the loss of a family member in an unfamiliar country whose judicial process seems both mysterious and interminable.
There are a lot of true crime documentaries on the market these days, but Finding Yingying stands out as an accomplished and heartfelt film that drops a real bombshell in the final third. I also appreciate that it gets the job done in 98 minutes, unlike some Netflix doc series that spin less interesting material out for ten hours. The intimate feel of Finding Yingying is aided by the fact that Shi is not only from the same culture as the victim, but has a somewhat parallel life story—she graduated from Peking University the same year as Yingying, and was a graduate student at Northwestern University when Yingying disappeared. | Sarah Boslaugh
Finding Yingying is available for home viewing in Missouri and Illinois from Nov. 5-22 as part of the Saint Louis International Film Festival. You can purchase tickets ($10 general, $8 for Cinema St. Louis members) through the festival web site. Further information about SLIFF, including a complete list of films available and viewing options, is also available from the festival web site.