Review by Sean Boelman
With a wildly intriguing story at its core, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s directorial debut Finding Yingying starts out as an extremely compelling true crime documentary. However, due to some questionable directorial choices made in relation to the film’s narrative, the movie is ultimately better in intention than in execution.
The film takes a look into the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, a twenty-six-year-old scientist and teacher from China who travels to America to research at the University of Illinois, only to disappear from campus two weeks later. Those who come into this movie hoping for it to be a thrilling mystery will be disappointed, as Shi thankfully takes a much more grounded and emotional approach.
Although the film presents the obligatory details following Zhang’s case, the focus is instead on the impact her disappearance had on the people she knew. A majority of the movie follows the Zhang family as they search to bring their loved one home. This allows the viewer a unique perspective on the grieving experience.
That said, around the one hour mark, the film introduces a new perspective — that of the suspect’s mistress who plays an important part in the case. This shift is very jarring and ultimately wrecks the arc that Shi has established in the beginning of the movie, especially when this new character hijacks the emotional climax in the final act.
The Zhang family are certainly very compelling. The pain they are experiencing is unimaginable, and Shi does an amazing job of making the audience sympathize with their struggle. Yet by including these ineffective sequences near the end of the film, Shi largely undermines the harrowing and soul-crushing potential of the narrative.
Regardless, Shi does offer an interesting message with her movie. The film’s bleak outlook on the American justice system is evident from the moment the movie begins, but there is still some hope to be found in the narrative. Ending with a picture of Yingying Zhang with arms wide open, “Life is too short to be ordinary,” can be heard, a quote from Zhang’s personal diaries. Shi hopes that, from this tragedy, that people take advantage of the opportunity they are given.
On a technical level, Shi’s film is mostly fine, although some unprofessional-looking quirks of the movie will draw audiences out of the film every once in a while. Because Shi was afforded personal access to the Zhang family and Yingying Zhang’s diaries, she is able to tell the story with an effective combination of fly-on-the-wall footage and archive materials accompanied by her own readings of Yinging Zhang’s words.
Even though it starts off very well, Jiayan Shi’s documentary Finding Yinging loses its footing part of the way through. There are simply too many leads in this story for Shi to pursue, and she gets overwhelmed as a result.
Finding Yingying was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.