'Finding Yingying': How the US justice system put missing Chinese student's parents at a disadvantage

The verdict may be out but for the Zhang family there might never be closure to the fact that they lost their innocent daughter to a vicious predator

                            'Finding Yingying': How the US justice system put missing Chinese student's parents at a disadvantage
'Finding Yingying' (Kartemquin Films)

"My biggest concern is the suspect won't get a severe punishment. And I'm afraid that they won't ever find my daughter," Yingying Zhang's father RongGao worriedly says in the documentary 'Finding YingYing'. On the other hand, Lifeng, the mother asks, "The Americans won't forget about my daughter, right?" Their 26-year-old daughter Yingying Zhang, who had come to the US (Champaign, Illinois) from China to study and become a teacher, had been missing for roughly a year and a half by this time. The parents are barely hanging on. Tensions are running high at their home back in China. RongGao has done himself dry sucking on cigarettes constantly. And is more often than not in a domestic quarrel with his wife and Yingying's mother. The tragic loss of their daughter had drilled even bigger holes in an already deteriorating relationship. The past year had been excruciating for the couple – the father, who was constantly worried about the safety of his young daughter in a foreign land – Yingying had, after all, never left home and lived by herself. Today, as he talks to Jiayan 'Jenny' Shi, the director of the documentary and Yingying's friend, he is restless about getting justice for his daughter, who was brutally assaulted and murdered by Brendt Christensen.

"Their justice system puts victims at a disadvantage. It's unfair. They've already delayed the court case a year. They replaced the judge recently. They might use it as another excuse to postpone the trial," he says, before finally exclaiming, "What the hell are these US laws?"

Yingying Zhang (Screengrab: 'Finding Yingying'/ Kartemquin Films)

The atmosphere is highly emotional when Mushou, Yingying's grandfather, adds, "If the US doesn't address the case properly, we'll kill one or two American students in China."

'Finding Yingying' is a 1 hour 37 minutes film that documents the family's desperate attempts at searching for their missing daughter in a foreign land. It is directed by Jenny, who was a college friend of Yingying's from back in China and at the time of her disappearance, a journalism student in Illinois. As she follows Yingying's family and her boyfriend Xiaolin, the film sets itself apart from most true crime documentaries by focusing on the family's ordeal. The devastating, heartbreaking tale of Yingying, who was an extraordinary girl even in her ordinariness, is made even more captivating as Jenny narrates Yingying's entries from her diaries.

A young, optimistic and inspirational girl, Yingying's life rules were simple - "Live a simple life. Be effective." In a foreign land, as she tackled loneliness and aspirations head-on, Yingying was courageous and tried her best to remain positive. Six weeks into her shift to the US, she went missing. 

Her parents fly to the US to look for her - at first only her father and aunt because her mother takes too sick to come. While they are hopeful that they will take Yingying back home, but soon enough all their hopes begin to wane as no signs of an alive Yingying emerge.

Xiaolin and Yingying (Screengrab: 'Finding Yingying'/ Kartemquin Films)

The documentary highlights the cultural differences between China and the US but also puts focus on the justice system. As her boyfriend of 8-years notes in the film, the American police might be sure that their suspect committed the crime, but they have no way of getting him to talk. The Chinese police, on the other hand, have the rights and the means to investigate a suspect and get him to talk. Torture methods are all too common in Asian countries like China and India, where the police resort to 'third degree' to get a suspect talking or admitting to crimes. 

The final verdict disappointed the families too. While they were confident that after a long 2-year wait, Brendt would be given the death penalty, the jurors were torn 10-2 and the killer finally got life in prison without the possibility of release. "I can kill anyone with all kinds of cruel methods and I will not need to die for it," Xiaolin says after the verdict is delivered. 

"The death penalty is very hard to get in America", Steve Beckett, the Zhang family attorney, explains in the docu-film. "In China, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people who are awaiting death sentences. That can bring within its sweep, people who are innocent. So in America, we rather [go] the other way."

The verdict may be out, but for the Zhang family, there might never be closure with the fact that they lost their innocent daughter to a vicious predator. 

'Finding Yingying' is available in virtual theatres on December 11.

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