Most true-crime tales center on the crime itself.
But Finding Yingying isn’t most true-crime tales.
To be sure, there is a crime: a harrowing, heartbreaking, haunting one.
To this award-winning documentary’s credit, however, the literally gory details play a much smaller role in the overall picture than they generally do.
That’s because, true to its title, Finding Yingying concentrates not on the perpetrator who ended Yingying Zhang’s life but on Yingying Zhang’s life.
The 26-year-old Chinese scholar — an agricultural PhD candidate at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus — had only been in the U.S. for six weeks when she vanished in June 2017.
On the day she disappeared, she had been on her way to sign an apartment lease — but never arrived.
By the time we learn these ominous details, we’ve already learned a good deal about Yingying.
That’s because documentarian Jiayan “Jenny” Shi makes extensive use of evocative photographs and insightful diary entries (read by the director herself) to chart Yingying’s plans, impressions and fears.
Reflecting on her adventure in America, it’s “the first time I’ve lived independently,” Yingying writes. “I feel a little bit lonely but I still want to try.”
Her disappearance prompts her father, her aunt and her boyfriend to rush to Illinois to search for her.
“I believe if she were dead, she would visit me in my dreams,” Yingying’s aunt muses. “But she never comes to my dreams. Never. That must mean she’s still alive.”
Initially, Yingying’s mother is too distraught to travel. But we meet her as Shi (who, like Yingying, graduated from Peking University and pursued further studies at the University of Illinois) journeys to China to observe the family’s anguish.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., authorities finally track down a suspect.
Yet “even if the police know for sure this suspect did it, they have no way to make him talk,” Yingying’s father laments. “But in China, it’s different. The police have the right and the methods to interrogate him and make him tell the truth.”
In the process of learning the awful truth, Finding Yingying explores such cultural differences — and, more importantly, such universal emotions — with keen but sensitive perception.
A powerfully poignant moment toward the end — as a federal witness meets Yingying’s devastated family and expresses her regrets in halting high-school Mandarin — exemplifies Finding Yingying’s primary emphasis on life, not death.