In July 2016, thousands of students walked in Peking University's commencement ceremonies. Among them were Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, who graduated from the main Beijing campus with a bachelor of arts in broadcasting, and Yingying Zhang, an environmental engineering student who graduated from Peking’s graduate campus in Shenzhen. Though separated by age and geography, both women would pursue higher education in Illinois — Shi to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and Zhang to the University of Illinois as a visiting scholar conducting photosynthesis research.

The women never met. In fact, they would never meet: On June 9, 2017, just six weeks after arriving in Champaign, Zhang was abducted, raped, and murdered by a man impersonating a police officer. Her death set off a yearslong investigation and whirlwind of grief for all who loved her.

Finding Yingying, a new Kartemquin Films documentary directed by Shi, follows the Zhang family for more than two years as they seek justice for their daughter in a foreign land. Incorporating local news footage, haunting readings of Zhang’s diary, and talking-head interviews as the case was unfolding, the film is a moving portrait of grief, family, and cultural alienation in both China and the United States. The documentary was set to have its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March before the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Shi, 26, has since worked as a video journalist with Free Spirit Media’s The Real Chi and as a post-production translator for the Oscar-winning documentary American Factory. Even so, she says Finding Yingying wasn’t originally intended to be a documentary. After hearing of Zhang’s mysterious disappearance in Peking University alumni circles, Shi traveled to Champaign to join a group of Chinese American students supporting the Zhang family. Soon, she was taking the Metra from Chicago to Champaign once a week to visit the family, sometimes several days at a time, as teams of volunteers scoured the city. She started documenting the efforts on camera; after her documentary filmmaking professor, Brent Huffman, saw a 10-minute version of the film, he encouraged her to explore a longer project.

Director Jiayan "Jenny" Shi
Photo: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

“I was wondering what I could really do for them, and I realized I could start documenting what was going on right now,” Shi says.

Three weeks after Zhang’s disappearance, things took a turn when a suspect, Brendt Christensen, was taken into custody. The FBI filed a report stating they didn’t believe she was alive.

“That was the moment I realized that this would go in a different direction than we expected,” Shi says. “Everyone thought she would be found and that it was just a matter of time.”

The police also released video evidence of Zhang getting into the suspect’s car. Zhang had been late to an appointment because of a missed bus, so she acquiesced when a man pulled up in a car to give her a ride, claiming to be an undercover police officer.

As more details of Zhang’s abduction came to light, Shi was unnerved. The circumstances of Zhang’s disappearance were incredibly similar to an experience she had as a Medill student while covering a police community meeting late into the night.

“I was waiting at a bus stop alone, and a guy who I had seen at a meeting and who had seemed to be associated with the police approached me and offered me a ride,” she recounts in a voiceover in Finding Yingying.

Shi weighed her suspicion of the man against waiting for the bus alone in the dark. Then, she did something uncharacteristic: She got in his car.

“Fortunately, I arrived home safely,” she says.

Zhang’s diary entries, read aloud by Shi throughout the film, attest to her feelings of social isolation and culture shock as she adapted to life in Champaign. In one, Zhang writes: “Today I went to apply for a Social Security Number. After exiting the school gate, I could hardly see anyone. I felt a little afraid. The wind was so hard. My umbrella couldn’t keep out the rain. My glasses were covered with rain drops. My hair was dancing frantically with the wind. I am alone in this foreign country.”

In Zhang’s last diary entry before her murder, she writes, “Life is too short to be ordinary.”

“I feel like I resonate with her so much,” Shi says. “The experience she had was exactly what I felt when I first arrived in the U.S. four years ago.”

Video: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Over the course of the film, Shi and Shilin Sun, her coproducer and cinematographer, went to Champaign several dozen times, even renting an apartment in Peoria during the trial in the summer of 2019. Shi says she flew to China to visit the Zhang family twice. Altogether, 300 hours of material were filmed, which was ultimately culled down to 98 minutes in the final cut.

Finding Yingying largely focuses on Zhang herself — an ambitious environmental scientist, traveler, and lead singer of an amateur pop band — and traces the human impact of her murder, including a prolonged and painful legal process that strained her parents’ marriage. When addressing the circumstances of her death, the documentary specifically forgoes the “whodunnit” tropes and lurid violence that characterizes the true crime genre. For example, when recounting Christensen’s confession, Shi summarizes the details in a voiceover rather than using the killer’s own words and emphasizes how hard Zhang fought back.

“We didn't want to glorify him,” Shi says. “Sometimes I feel like he was just bragging. I didn't want him to have any time in this film, showing off what he did to Yingying.”

In doing so, the film stands apart from other documentary treatments of Zhang's disappearance and murder. ABC’s two-hour 20/20 episode on Zhang’s murder, which premiered this past November, largely focuses on the investigation into Christensen — his online plans to abduct women and the sting operation involving his girlfriend.

As a female Chinese international student, Shi felt her similarities with Zhang “gave [her] the strength and the confidence to tell the right story.” That, too, stands apart from 20/20’s often insensitive treatment: In the first few minutes of the episode, one of the Zhang family’s attorneys references U. of I.’s large Chinese population by saying, “If you went around campus about this time, I swear to God you’d think you were in Beijing, because there are so many Asian students.” 

Finding Yingying joins other Chinese- and Chinese American–focused projects Shi has worked on since moving to the United States. In her position with The Real Chi, she covered the push to organize aldermanic and mayoral candidate forums in Chinatown. While translating footage from Mandarin to English for American Factory, she became fascinated by U.S.–China power dynamics and how that played out on one factory floor.

Documentaries, by necessity, have to limit storylines to a select few. But when Finding Yingying can be seen by the general public — whenever that will be — Shi still hopes people will see a more complete story of Yingying Zhang’s life.

“She was so kind and generous and brilliant and ambitious. That's something we wouldn't really know from general media coverage. From my perspective, nothing is more powerful than her own plans through her own words.”