When Yingying Zhang goes missing in “Finding Yingying,” director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi doesn’t immediately suggest foul play was involved. You first see her mother grief-stricken on the couch and her fellow grad students on the horticulture track at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana retracing their steps on a field trip to Nebraska where they had gone to look into how climate change affected the yield of crops, but as much as Shi is compelled to tell a story of what happened to Yingying and conventional wisdom would push a filmmaker in that direction to create an engaging narrative, particularly when it’s ultimately headed toward the lurid territory that “Finding Yingying” does, the film finds that illustrating who she was to so many is far more interesting than the tragedy that befell her.
Shi mentions that she attended the same school with Yingying back in China at one point early in the film (though they didn’t cross paths), but rarely brings up the personal connection again, instead letting it surface naturally in how she sensitively recounts how a young woman, not unlike herself as an expatriate who pursued an education in America, somehow ended up inside of a black Saturn Astro with a stranger one night. The start of a typical true crime story for most, the filmmaker presents a far different view when the mystery is never who is responsible for the kidnapping, but how everyone in Yingying’s life will grapple with such a profound loss, joining her father Ronggao, her aunt Liqin and her boyfriend Xiaolin when they arrive in Chicago to start searching in person. (Her mother Lifeng is too distraught to make the journey.) Shi’s perspective as someone still acclimating to American life proves invaluable in guiding the camera and the narrative as a whole, from attempting to understand why Yingying would accept a ride from someone she didn’t know to outlining the cultural differences that make it so difficult for the Zhangs to comprehend how the criminal justice system works in another country.
Rather than paying rapt attention to the court case that results in Illinois, Shi heads to Nanping in the Fujian Province of China where ordinary scenes of everyday life show how the absence of Yingying has radically changed even the most mundane of activities — at one point, Lifeng asks, “What’s the point of filming all this?” preparing eggs for a meal, when an empty chair at the dinner table can demonstrate how the entire mood of the room has changed, and when the film returns to America, the criminal trial that hasn’t been without its share of fireworks can be experienced in its proper context. Shi admirably refuses to sensationalize the story, but it still packs a wallop – audiences should be warned that the details that emerge aren’t for the faint of heart, but the film surely replicates the experience of the family feeling as if a ton of bricks have been dropped on them as they hear each new revelation regarding Yingying’s abduction.
Still, it’s remarkable how “Finding Yingying” gets away from the traditional framework that governs how these stories are told, allowing the Zhangs to be seen separately from the horrific situation they find themselves in and on a larger scale, illuminating the subtle societal influences that shape not only their attitude towards what happened to their daughter but how the case is being processed in America. For these eyes, the film may appear to be a little too gentle at first in parsing out information about Yingying’s disappearance, but Shi seems to be well-aware that she’s deprogramming years of “Dateline NBC” and “48 Hours” as well as every film that turn crimes into entertainment, and through the near-radical level of compassion she shows in rejecting any implication that Yingying be seen exclusively as a victim or that everyone connected her be seen only in the light of their pain, she finds that there are many other places besides the courtroom where justice can be served.