Before We Vanish by Morris Yang Film

Finding Yingying | Jiayan Shi

Credit: MTV Documentary Films

Finding Yingying smartly avoids its early promise of true-crime procedural in favor of something more rawly emotional.


Mere weeks after her arrival in the United States, Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar from Peking University, went missing and was presumed dead. An avid agricultural student with dreams of managing her own ecology team once she graduated, she vanished from the University of Illinois campus on June 9, 2017, just as she was scheduled to sign an apartment lease. A federal investigation soon narrowed the suspect to one Brendt Allen Christensen, a former university student whose car was identified on camera picking her up. Christensen resisted questioning, confessing his grisly deeds only some two years later at his trial. Finding Yingying, Jiayan Shi’s moving portrait of a family in perpetual anguish, does not neglect to cover this aforementioned sequence of events, but the focus of its action, as per its title, is on the present continuous. Beyond an admission of guilt, or conclusive proof of Yingying’s remains, it is the hope that she might be out there somewhere, alive, which her family clings to.

Initially utilizing a true-crime procedural framework, Shi deftly sidesteps such bare bones to find the meat of the matter, charting the earnestly raw emotional aftermath of Yingying’s disappearance. The torturous wait for justice takes its greatest toll on her family as they await Christensen’s sentencing, frequently delayed in murky legal waters, and Shi captures their most gut-wrenching moments over a two-year period with startling immediacy. Herself an alumnus of Peking University — and from the same batch as Yingying — Shi invests a personal dimension into her documentary, empathizing on the basis of not only the family’s tragedy but also their shared immigrant status. In her diary, which Shi narrates out loud (albeit in English), Yingying articulates both the optimism and uneasiness felt upon touchdown; a fish out of water, she was eagerly determined to succeed, but felt stymied by familial separation and cultural distance. The kindness of strangers, ubiquitous back home, presents itself as a rarity over in this foreign land.

More than a factual account of her disappearance, Finding Yingying pays tribute to those who have survived her, bravely and intimately expressing the wounds hacked into the hearts of grieving parents, siblings, significant others, and countrymen. Many Chinese families who send their children abroad do contend with such risks, even as the U.S. remains a promised land in the eyes of most. Most crucially, Shi’s film celebrates Yingying’s life, her hopes and aspirations. “Life is too short to be ordinary.” Giving voice to her for the final time, Finding Yingying bittersweetly commemorates a life tragically cut short.


Published as part of Before We Vanish | December 2020 — Part 2.

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