A documentary centered on the search for a visiting Chinese scholar who was abducted, raped and murdered in 2017 has been winning big at film festivals this year.
“Finding Yingying,” which won the Breakthrough Voice award at the SXSW Film Festival in March, was most recently featured at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) and the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), where it also won accolades.
Directed by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, the 98-minute documentary tells the story of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student who disappeared weeks after arriving at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was last seen at a campus bus stop on June 9, 2017.
Zhang was abducted, raped and murdered by Brendt Allen Christensen, a former Ph.D. candidate at the university. In a wired conversation, he told Terra Bullis, his then-girlfriend, that he hit Zhang in the head “as hard as I could and it broke her head open.”
The film follows Zhang’s family and her boyfriend’s journey as they search for her whereabouts and seek justice in a foreign legal system. They eventually left the U.S. without the young scientist, whose remains have never been found.
“The first time I learned about Yingying was through a message from my college alum group chat. Yingying and I had both attended Peking University in China. The message said a Chinese student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was missing. At that time, I myself was an international student studying just a few hours away,” Shi told Get Reel Movies ahead of the film’s premiere at SXSW.
The young director spent two years and eight months helming the documentary. While she and Zhang shared similar experiences, the latter’s story was not easy to tell, as she had to earn and keep the trust of a family desperate for answers.
“The more time I spent with Yingying’s family, the more I thought about my own parents,” Shi said. “I knew how devastated they would have been if this had happened to me. I knew how much a Chinese family has to give up to send their children abroad for a better future. Yingying and her family’s story resonated with me a lot.”
Christensen initially maintained that, despite all their efforts, Zhang’s family will “never find her.” But he eventually offered to reveal the location of her remains in exchange for a life imprisonment sentence.
Defense lawyers pointed to a landfill in Vermilion County, but there has been no update since. On July 18, 2019, Christensen was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“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,” Shi said at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), which was held last month. “I hope this film honors her life and preserves her legacy in some way.”
“Finding Yingying” is available to stream in the U.S. at DOC NYC from Nov. 11-19.
Feature Images via Zhang Family