The 56th Chicago International Film Festival is excited to welcome director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi to our fair city for the premiere of her film Finding Yingying. In April 2017, idealistic Chinese student Yingying Zhang came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study agriculture. Six weeks later, she went missing. In what the Hollywood Reporter has called “a deft portrait of a family on the razor’s edge between hope and dread,” filmmaker Jiayan “Jenny” Shi chronicles the circumstances around Yingying’s disappearance and its devastating consequences on her family, friends, and community. All the more resonant and timely in the wake of rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S., Finding Yingying is at first an intriguing mystery and, ultimately, a haunting and heartbreaking exposition reflecting the state of current U.S.-Chinese relations. Below, Shi explains why she’s eager for Chicago audiences to experience her newest masterwork.
Why did you feel that the best way you could help Yingying’s family was by documenting their search for her?
I didn’t know if Yingying would be found at the beginning, and I didn’t even know what was going to happen next. But I knew the media wouldn’t focus on someone from another country for a long time, and I was wondering if there was a powerful tool that could let more people know about Yingying’s family and their hope. They wanted to find Yingying and bring her home. When I was filming them back in 2017, the family told me that they would like to continue the search if law enforcement didn’t find any clue or stopped searching. So I thought maybe people would help with the family’s search if they watched the film.
Three years later, there is more information about her whereabouts and whether it’s possible to find her, and I realized that this film is far beyond what I thought it would be. Public attention on the case will fade away as life goes on, but those who were left behind the tragedy have to deal with the trauma for the rest of their lives. There is a big chance that Yingying’s name will disappear eventually, but I don’t want that to happen. I hope this film honors her life and preserves her legacy in some way.
How did you win her family’s trust, especially at such a delicate, heartbreaking time?
We began our interaction with the family as volunteers, not filmmakers. Our co-producer and cinematographer Shilin Sun was a U of I student and volunteer when Yingying went missing. We started filming public events and the Chinese International students before we got access to the family. In the first few months that Yingying’s family spent in the U.S. in 2017, we visited them almost once a week as other volunteers did, and most of the time we were not filming. When we came up with the idea that it would be great to document their journey, we had numerous conversations with them to explain what we were doing and why we were doing this. At first, they didn’t really get that, but I believe at the end of the day they gradually understood the potential of the film that more people would hear their story and memorialize Yingying. We were also very careful when we were filming as we wanted to make sure they felt comfortable and we respected their feelings and privacy.
Contrary to the more generic “true crime” stories we see on television, where the victim’s life is treated rather superficially, you remind us of the human being behind the headlines.
The film title has two meanings: one is to find out where she is along with the family, the other one is really to get to know who Yingying was, so we tried our best to keep Yingying alive throughout the film. When we think about a case like this, the media is likely to focus on the crime, investigation or the perpetrator. They forget about the people left behind in the tragedy, and the person labeled only as the “victim” becomes dehumanized. Finding Yingying is not a traditional true-crime film. It’s a story of a brilliant young woman who is loved by her family and friends, a story of her grieving family trying to stay strong while trying to find her and navigating a strange, foreign country.
This is also a personal story for you. How did it impact you?
Finding Yingying is my first film, and I’ve been working on it since finishing graduate school in 2017. It’s been a very special emotional journey and a learning experience for me. In the past two years, I’ve witnessed many tragic moments as the case unraveled. But at the same time, I saw humanity, strength, and resilience from the community and those who were left behind. I also came to learn so much about Yingying: her optimism, perseverance, fearlessness, and her desire to experience life fully. She has become an inspiration to me and I am grateful to be able to share her story with audiences.
Finding Yingying is not an easy story to tell. As a first-time filmmaker, I struggled with ethical issues while dealing with my own emotions. I was also trying to maintain a sustainable life while navigating a clear career path. Fortunately, I received huge support and guidance from my team including producers Brent E. Huffman and Diane Quon, and Kartemquin Films. Finding Yingying is made through a joint effort, and the experience I have gained in this journey has been significant.
What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
I hope after the audience watches the film, they walk away with the image of an extraordinary woman who had a wonderful life ahead and the impact of such a sudden loss in the community and everyone around her. I also hope Finding Yingying can help change the narrative of crime stories nowadays.
What other films are you excited to see at the festival?
There are a lot of amazing films at the festival that I can’t wait to see! I’m looking forward to watching Nomadland, and two Chicago stories: City So Real and The Road Up.
Finding Yingying streams Oct. 14-25 in the United States. A livestream Q&A recording with director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, producer Brent E. Huffman, and cinematographer Shilin Sun can also be streamed following the film.