In traveling all the way to the U.S. to continue her academic career, 26-year-old Chinese grad student Yingying Zhang confessed to her diary that she had doubts about her journey: Thinking of her adoring, none-too-wealthy parents, she questioned whether it was worth their “emotional and financial sacrifice” to send her abroad. Neither Zhang nor her parents could have known that she herself would be what they lost irrecoverably to America. On June 9, 2017, only two months into her studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she was abducted and murdered by former student Brendt Christensen — an unhappy truth not confirmed until two years later.
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s heartfelt, unassuming film “Finding Yingying” may trace the ins and outs of a protracted investigation and trial, but despite outward appearances, it’s not a true-crime documentary in the standard macabre mold. Rather, it’s a missing-person search that doesn’t stop at solving the case, instead probing the effect of Zhang’s absence on her loved ones and empathetic strangers alike. Hovering somewhere between those points of view is Shi herself. The director resists inserting herself squarely into the narrative, while still professing herself haunted by what she and Zhang have in common. A former classmate of Zhang’s in their hometown of Nanping, she also attended Peking University before journeying to the States. This could as easily have been her fate, Shi solemnly implies as she probes Zhang’s disappearance and eventual death — she fully recognizes the mixture of loneliness and disorientation, both physical and cultural, that led the victim to step trustingly into a stranger’s car. Shi once did the very same thing, she reflects, but wasn’t so unfortunate.
Shi is a humane and thoughtful enough filmmaker not to go too far down the “if that were me” road, and expands her personal connection with Zhang’s story into a broader consideration of the 360,000 Chinese students in the U.S., whose tuition fees significant prop up their universities, but can be treated as silent outsiders in the system. That’s a subject for its own documentary, perhaps one that Shi — whose previous credit is as a translator and crew member on the Oscar-winning, thematically pertinent “American Factory” — would be in a good position to tackle herself someday. But her most generous and compassionate spotlight is cast on Zhang’s distraught working-class family, who arrive in the U.S. in the aftermath of their daughter’s disappearance hoping to find her alive, only to find themselves increasingly adrift in the unfamiliar procedures and delays of the American legal system.
“I always put my faith in people to help me find the way,” wrote Zhang, in one of several diary entries that Shi herself reads out in the course of the film. It’s a simple device that nonetheless gives the absent victim a clear, affecting voice — hopeful but bitterly melancholic in retrospect — in this elegy to her. Zhang’s parents, in their first trip on foreign soil, demonstrate much the same trust, which sets them on some wayward paths: A crank spiritual medium offers her services in a fruitless attempt to find Zhang’s body, and they’re both too naively polite and too unsupported to refuse.
In Shi, they have a more rational ally, though her camera isn’t entirely kind: Back home in China, during one of the case’s many agonizing lulls, the filmmaker quietly watches as the parents’ grief yields cruel words and crockery-smashing conflict between them. Unexpectedly so, given the grisly matter at hand, these are the toughest scenes to watch in “Finding Yingying”; there may be debate among viewers as to whether Shi is overstepping boundaries, though the film maintains a stoic level of compassion throughout.
Outreach and comfort for the Zhang family — further demoralized when American justice doesn’t match their eye-for-an-eye expectations — comes from a more surprising American source, one closely and uncomfortably tied to Brendt Christensen’s crime. A climactic meeting, conducted in nervous but effortful Mandarin, brings about a whisper of healing on both sides, and Shi is content to observe without involving herself. As filmmaking, “Finding Yingying” is conventional and not averse to cliché, particularly via a brooding score that takes too many notes from the true-crime playbook. But its sensitive, sincerely affected director knows a moment of grace when she sees one.