'Finding Yingying' Review: Non-exploitative true-crime documentary focuses on trauma faced by victim's loved ones

Jiayan 'Jenny' Shi plays multiple roles in her first documentary – not only is she the director but she also acts as a translator and tries to give Yingying Zhang her own voice


                            'Finding Yingying' Review: Non-exploitative true-crime documentary focuses on trauma faced by victim's loved ones
Yingying Zhang and parents (Kartemquin Films)

In June 2017, Yingying Zhang, a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign who was studying agriculture went missing. The search for her continued for days, but the identity of her killer would not be revealed until weeks later. During a memorial walk for Zhang, a local resident, Brendt Allen Christensen, told his girlfriend that he killed Zhang — choking her, beating her with a baseball bat, stabbing her, and ultimately decapitating her.

In most true-crime shows or documentaries, the victim disappears. By that we mean that when entries of the genre focus on the killers -- and their depraved acts --, the audience becomes desensitized to the actual crime, forgetting that actual human beings were killed, causing pain to their families and friends. That is not the case with the latest documentary out in virtual cinemas, 'Finding Yingying'. Directed by Yingying's schoolmate, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, a Chicago-based Chinese filmmaker, the documentary focuses on the aftermath of Yingying's murder -- and the effect it had on her loved ones. 

When Yingying first went missing, her father, Ronggao Zhang, her aunt, Liqin Ye, and her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, arrived in the United States with the hopes of finding Yingying. When the documentary begins, we see Yingying from that perspective -- a dedicated, loving woman who did not want her life to be ordinary. Yingying was in the United States to complete her Ph.D. and hoped to return to China where she aimed of becoming a teacher.

But as investigations continue, Yingying's fate is slowly uncovered, and Christensen's role in kidnapping her, and then brutally killing her is revealed, we witness the Zhang family's hopes die out. It is only after Yingying's death is made certain that her mother, Lifeng Ye, travels to the United States, with Yingying's younger brother, Zhengyang Zhang. Even so, the family holds out some hope because a body has not been discovered. After the death is confirmed, Yingying's family stays behind to find her body, so they can give her burial rites according to their customs.

In focusing on the aftermath of the murder on the family, Shi's 'Finding Yingying' carves a space for itself to become a non-exploitative account of the woman who was murdered and the impact it had. While Yingying's parents may have already had problems before her death, the loss of their daughter only serves to drive them apart. Meanwhile, Yingying's brother who looked up to his sister feels lost, having no one to advise him. It isn't just in that instance that the viewers understand how big the loss is. Just after the news of Yingying's death is revealed, Ronggao is more composed, telling Lifeng to keep calm when she cries loudly. However, don't expect that to mean he is not as hurt. When the documentary shows scenes from one year after the murder, it is probably Yingying's father who has adjusted the least. We see Lifeng smile (even if with vacant eyes) for the first time here, but Ronggao smokes continuously, and the two end up fighting. When Yingying's killer is only given life imprisonment, both her parents and her boyfriend feel that Yingying was not given justice. They wanted Christensen to get the death penalty.

Jiayan "Jenny" Shi plays multiple roles in her first documentary -- not only is she the director, but she also acts as a translator for Yingying's family, and more importantly, tries to give Yingying her own voice in telling her story. Comprising of archival footage, the documentary also features multiple passages from Yingying's journals, giving us an insight into the life of a woman who was cruelly taken from this world.

'Finding Yingying' is available in virtual cinemas on Friday, December 11. Details for booking can be found here.

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