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An Extended Portrait

Finding Solace in Film With Jiayan "Jenny" Shi's "Finding Yingying"

Grace Yu

Esther Hwang

In November, I had the honor and pleasure of getting to sit down and chat with Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, a first-time documentary filmmaker and video journalist based in Chicago, Ill., to discuss her award-winning film Finding Yingying, which was recently released in virtual cinemas. The Kartemquin-produced, feature-length doc traces the journey of Zhang Yingying’s family and friends to solve the mystery of her disappearance and creates a beautifully painted portrait of a brilliant life that touched everyone she came into contact with — and whose absence has been deeply felt. (The tragedy of Yingying’s kidnapping and murder while she was at the University of Illinois as a visiting scholar drew widespread, international media attention in 2017.) Our conversation touched on Jenny’s process of making the film — including the discovery of who Yingying was to all those who dearly loved her — and a successful festival run that included the 2020 South by Southwest (SXSW) Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice in the documentary feature competition. (More information on how you can see the film can be found here.) 

Grace Yu: I’ve heard that the University of Illinois enrolls the highest number of international students in the U.S. on a yearly basis, and that a lot of these students are Chinese international students. I was curious about how you first heard about this story. Were you connected to U of I in any way? Did you relate personally to Yingying’s experience of coming to the U.S. as a Chinese national?

Jenny Shi: When I first heard about her disappearance, it was the summer of 2017. I believe that it was like two or three days after her disappearance. I learned about that actually through my college alumni group chat on WeChat [China’s most popular social media and messaging app]. Then I found out we went to the same university in China; we both went to Beijing University, but we didn't know each other before. But for me, because she was a Chinese student, and she's at U of I — and actually, a lot of my college friends, college classmates, they were getting their master's degrees at U of I, [so] I did have friends at U of I — for me, I was immediately joined to the story itself. Everyone was spreading the word because she just went missing, so we thought we could find her very soon. It had happened before, that someone just went to Chicago or, you know, their phone died and that person gets back to friends one day or two days later — that's happened before. So we're just spreading the word, and I think it's been like a week or so and people started searching for her and designing posters and things like that. I wasn't involved in that part, but I was definitely closely following anything, any updates, and I was in Chicago, and it was [only] a two-hour drive to the Urbana-Champaign area.

It was when the parents arrived in the U.S., they went to Champaign — I also learned from the group chat — I saw people were going from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign to visit the family to see what they could do. So I also went there, that's how I connected to the volunteer groups at U of I — and I think there were several different kinds of volunteer groups — the local Chinese American community and also international students from U of I. I think these are the two biggest groups supporting the family, so I joined them, and I found out that Yingying’s colleagues at U of I were also Beijing University alumni. So we kind of have a connection to each other. So that's how I got to visit the family, that's how everything comes together, and it [would] be, definitely, you know — this is a huge story. You have a lot of Chinese international students [involved], and also in China, my parents, they started texting me, “Don't go outside, it's dangerous outside in the U.S.,” and also they also told me, “Don't go to the Urbana-Champaign area,” you know — “Who's out there, you don’t know what's gonna happen to you.” So I think this was just a huge [thing].

GY: I'm pretty sure my own parents, who I live with now in the suburbs — they also heard about the story through their friends on WeChat. They would say similar things, like “It's dangerous for a young Asian girl to walk around alone,” or things like that, especially near [university] campus areas. I think people started to get more concerned and wanted to tell us — to tell their children to take more precautions.

So, you visited Urbana-Champaign when [Yingying’s] family came over. What motivated you to keep following the story? Eventually, a case developed, and it was continually being updated between 2017 and the last couple of years. How did you decide to tell her story through a documentary?

JS: For me, there are different reasons — one is, it was something related to me. I couldn't  — I just couldn't stop thinking — what if it happened to me, what would my parents [be] like, and how worried would they be? That's something always on my mind. On the other hand, because I was in journalism school, it's always my instinct to figure out what happened — especially with something that's related to me and that resonates with my own experience. So that's why I first decided to go down to Champaign. At that time, I didn't move to Champaign, but I visited regularly, at least once a week. So, one, meet the family, do what I could do to help them, and also [be with] other alumni and Chinese students. On the other hand, I also wanted to know what was gonna happen next. We were really hoping there's a happy ending — even though she was kidnapped — [but] maybe she’s safe, things like that. That’s really like, the first several weeks, why I was down there. Later on, the FBI and the police arrested a suspect — and they basically said they didn't believe Yingying was alive. That was the moment we realized that this whole thing was going in a totally different direction, beyond everyone's expectations.

For me, [in] the time I spent with Yingying’s family, I really realized how important Yingying was to everyone around her. And even though I never met Yingying, I always heard [stories about her] through her family and colleagues and other people who knew her. At that time, there was a lot of media attention, national networks, and also local. They were really chasing the story from an investigation perspective, really focused on who’s the suspect and digging into all the details, things like that. 

But for me, I just felt Yingying’s parents and also Yingying herself were a little bit lost in all the media chaos. And even though there are reporters trying to interview the family, because of the language barrier, sometimes they could only show Mom crying — and that's a very typical stereotype of a victim. From my perspective, they are human beings, and they have their own stories, and they have their own voice that wants to be heard. That's when I started to think about maybe documenting their journey and also documenting the places where Yingying used to study and used to work — that's also something the family actually wanted to do. When I pitched the idea to them, they felt like they could bring back the footage to China to share it with their friends and relatives because Yingying was the first person in the whole family [to go to college] and eventually go to the United States. She did something no one else in their whole family did, so for them, seeing what she's been doing in the U.S. was also something really great. So that's how I started. And in terms of the story, we filmed over two years and a half until the end of the trial. For me, even though I graduated from [journalism] school, I still felt like there were many more things I needed to capture if I wanted to tell a full story and paint a full picture of what's going on.

In 2018, I went back to China to spend time with Yingying’s parents, and that was the time I got to see her diary and her childhood photos, home videos, and to see where she grew up. That was the first time I realized how amazing she was — and also, seeing her diary, what kind of goals she set for herself, what kind of dreams she had — that resonated with me a lot. I really felt like, maybe this project, what I'm doing should be something to honor Yingying’s life, to show how the loss of Yingying affected everyone and how much her life has touched everyone around her. And that's the idea — just keep following this journey to see what happens in the end, and [meanwhile] I also started to intentionally collect things about Yingying herself.

GY: How long were you in China for, and where is she from in China?

JS: So she’s from Fujian province. She grew up in Nanping, the city of Nanping, Fujian province. And I think I went back for maybe two to three weeks. I spent 10 days with Yingying’s parents or maybe two weeks; I can't remember exactly. I basically lived with them. They were happy to see me visiting them, so they invited me to stay in their house, basically — and Mom, she's really happy, preparing breakfast, preparing meals for me, and sometimes she would ask me if I wanted to get some bubble tea — she really treated me like her own daughter.

So the time we spent was — I don't know how to describe it. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel like my existence in their house somehow could bring some comfort to Yingying’s mother. But on the other hand, it also seems to be a reminder that her daughter is gone and there's someone else here. So, I have mixed feelings. But I really wanted to see what kind of life they had in China and how this whole tragedy changed their life.

GY: Thank you for sharing that experience. I feel emotional just hearing you retell that narrative about your experience visiting Yingying’s family. In a way, it almost seems to me like you're making sort of an extended portrait or even a eulogy for Yingying because you've pieced together all these parts of her life. And not that you can ever really fully get closure from a loss like this, but it's some sort of solace to people who lost her that her story is being told, and that she's being honored and remembered as a person and not just as the victim of a crime. I don't know if you would see it that way, but I almost see it as a eulogy in remembrance of her, a film such as this.

JS: I'm so glad that’s what you took away from the film. That’s exactly what we tried to do. Because, again, we always hope someone like Yingying should be [remembered] — she's not just a random foreigner who was killed in the U. S., not [just] a random Chinese girl. She's such an amazing, unique person who had a bright future ahead. And also, I have to say that — I think she was 26 years old when she disappeared, I've been making this film for three years, and this year I'm actually 26 — reading her diary again I just feel how mature, brilliant and caring she was, and she was such an amazing person, much better than me, you know?

I would always think about that — it's such a loss, and thinking about what potentially she could contribute to the world — what she's been studying, you know, climate change and also all this [other] stuff — I just feel like she's just such an amazing person. This film, even though a lot of the film is documenting the family's grief, but also, we're hoping [it] can be something positive and something hopeful, and really let the audience watch the film — and they can also be inspired by Yingying herself. And somehow this film can preserve her legacy and celebrate her life.

GY: I'll follow up with another question about audience response. Is that what you hope that audiences will gain from the film, that they'll be able to get to know a person who deserves to be remembered in this way? What else, maybe, do you hope audiences will take away?

JS: Yeah, I think, other than [remembering] Yingying as a living person, we also want to try to show the audience that there are other kinds of narrative, of a crime story, because true crime is so popular right now, and I understand why they're popular. But we really need to think about, at least from my perspective, how to see the people who are left behind by these tragedies and how we’re giving power to the participants of the film, or: who is the person we're giving power to? In this film, we give power to Yingying. And also, the film title, Finding Yingying, there are two meanings: one is, physically, to find her, to see whether the family can bring her back. The other one is finding her, [as in,] who she was. My hope at the end of the day, that after watching the film, the audience can really get to know her, like I did. Right now I just feel like she's a friend of mine, an old friend of mine, like we knew each other for a long time. So I really wish I could know her when she was still with us. But now, hoping this film can be another way to introduce her to more people, and inspire more people — that’s my hope.

GY: I think that’s very beautiful. And I really appreciate your thinking in your process of making this film. One last question, switching gears now. Your film was due to premiere at SXSW earlier this year. How have you and your team adapted to virtual distribution and this virtual film world?

JS: When we first heard that South by was cancelled, it was actually before our world premiere, exactly a week before. I was shocked at first because I always had a concern that maybe big festivals would get cancelled because of COVID, because I knew what was going on in China at that moment. But I didn't really expect it to happen. So I was pretty shocked. My second thought was, “How are we going to adapt to this?” — since we weren't going to have a physical world premiere, so what’s next for the film? Are we going to keep showing? Because we were accepted to other festivals already. Are we going to premiere the film in the next festival? But later on, we learned that all the festivals — almost all the festivals in the spring — got cancelled. Some festivals were successfully changed to a virtual edition, but some just cancelled, they're not doing anything this year, and even then we don’t know whether they would come back next year. So, for me, it was a concern about whether we would get the film out this year. 

But I think the whole industry, and also filmmakers [in general], we try to be creative. At the end of the spring, no one knows what's going to happen next. Some are talking about, maybe we are going to distribute DIY, do self-distribution, or maybe to pull from some festivals — and if we can get into a big festival in the fall, maybe we can premiere at a festival for the fall. But no one really knows, and for us, getting the word out is our priority because the story is so timely. Thinking about what's going on this year — about the Chinese international students and also Chinese American community — all the hate crimes, xenophobia, things like that, we just feel like this is the perfect story to come out this year. The story, actually, from my perspective — it breaks the stereotype of Chinese international students — who they are. It really gives the general public an example of who exactly we are. We were hoping to release the film this year, so we continued with any festival who were still going to play as planned, virtually.

We had some festivals in August, and I would say it was in October, we really had a very robust film festival run — we had I think 13 festivals in one month, including the Chicago International Film Festival. That's for us a homecoming, because the whole crew is a Chicago-based crew and the story happened in Illinois. Other than that, we also had screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and other Asian American festivals, and it was well-received by different communities, not only the Asian American community, but also the general public. And this month [November], we're actually showing it at DOC NYC — that's another highlight of our festival run. Our overall hope is really to create exposure, create buzz around the film; eventually, we can get people to hear about Yingying’s story and allow people to [commemorate] her. Before, I felt like this is such a big story among my community, but maybe beyond Illinois, people would just never hear about it — so it's great that the film's coming out this year — and we have more, in the future, so that’s exciting.