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Finding Yingying (2020)

| December 17, 2020

How big is the world?
I want to measure the world with my feet.

This sentence, written in the diary of 26-year-old graduate student Yingying Zhang, could only have been written by a person at a very particular time in their youth – old enough to still be touched by the magic of the world but not quite old enough to be clouded by the cynicism that comes with experience.  These words are indicative of someone looking so optimistically at the world ahead.

Yingying Zhang never got to measure the world with her feet.  On June 9, 2017, she was late for an appointment with an apartment manager and missed her connecting bus.  Desperate to reach her destination on time, she accepted a ride from a stranger and thereafter disappeared into thin air. Weeks later a campus security camera revealed a suspect who had kidnapped and later murdered her.

That movie is only partially about that.  The director Jaiyan “Jenny” Shi is not so much interested in the bullet points of the criminal case as she is in the victim herself and the people who were affected by her tragedy.  She wants us to know Yingying, not as a victim but as a person.  Through photos (in which she is always smiling) and through diary entries, we get to know Yingying.  Her diary entries are read by Shi herself so that we get inside the mind of a person who can no longer write those words.  What we sense is a young person who was curious about the world, yearning for the future, reasonably insecure and uncertain about the personally undiscovered country that she now occupied.  Late in the film, when the words are suddenly stopped short, there seems to be a sense of dead air, something that is startingly incomplete.

Zhang was a highly motivated grad student who had come from her native China to The University of Illinois at Champagne, Urbana on a year-long research project to do studies on photosynthesis.  It was a frightening journey, as it is for thousands of Chinese students who migrate to the United States every year, and financially and emotionally exhausting for the family who saw their child move unprepared to an unknown land.  In the wake of Yingying’s murder, the toll on the family is devastatingly personal, particularly on her parents. 

The family becomes the film’s center, each dealing with the tragedy in their own way, especially in the agonizingly slow search to locate her, which is followed by the even slower legal process which becomes a frustrating series of false starts and legal loopholes to bring the perpetrator, Brent Christensen to justice.  Yingying’s father boils under the surface, constantly and nervously smoking.  Her fiance Xiaolin Hou tries nobly to make sense of the senseless.  And her mother Lifeng Ye’s cries are a howl of pain that will stay with me.

Needless-to-say this is a very sad story, and frustrating given how the particulars of the case eventually reach a stalled conclusion, but what you get here is the sense of promise unfulfilled.  Shi has put together a remarkable portrait of a life that shames true crime television shows that retreat from personalities in favor of sensationalistic ‘entertainment’.  Yingying was a person, beautiful, intelligent, poetic, frustrated, insecure and looking toward the journey of using her feet to measure the world. 

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized