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It goes without saying, that the true crime genre is very popular. Podcasts, TV shows, and docu series are easy to find. Part of the charm is in their structure. There are no surprises in how a true crime story is laid out. Introduce some characters, inform the audience of the crime, possibly throw in a twist, roll final credits shortly after.
Directed by Jianyan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying breaks from the standard true crime doc formula. Audiences will constantly be reminded they are watching something different. Its cold opening is more suited to a television police procedural. The choice to focus on character development over the more clickable aspects is akin to a high drama.
Shi’s documentary is about a Chinese student who came to the United States to study. For weeks, she kept in touch with her family through letters. While she was clearly homesick and trying to adjust to her life, she also seemed optimistic about her future. Her sudden disappearances brings her family to America and shows how strongly one person can move others.
Shi makes the wise choice to make Yingying a strong character. She is not just some specter that looms over everyone. This is done through the writings of the missing student. Pictures of Yingying also add depth. Shi makes it clear this is not just another mystery involving a missing student. The film is more about an actual person than just a dramatic case.
Adding to Yingying’s strong presence are the many interviews with those who knew her best. Unsurprisingly, her family is deeply affected. Her mother is initially so distraught, she is unable to make the trip from China to America. Her boyfriend has penned songs about her and her aunt is barely able to speak about her disappearance. Even Shi has a connection to Yingying that dates back to China. Yingying also touched people who had just recently met her.
This does not mean the mystery is ignored. Many similar documentaries tend to be very segmented. One part will be about the people, one part will be about the crime, and one will be about the aftermath. Shi does an excellent job of integrating everything into Finding Yingying. This makes for a more emotionally packed story instead of one that concentrates on anger and frustration.
The documentary is also about cultural differences. Shi is able to explain why Yingying would make decisions that seemingly make no sense. Watching her family try to navigate their way through America is another way the documentary differs. It is and additional layer of heart to an already moving story. The documentary succeeds at telling a separate about the family without undermining the crime.
Finding Yingying does an excellent job of telling a human story instead of sensationalizing a crime. It will definitely satisfy the needs of genre fans with its intriguing mystery. The case melds effortlessly with the documentary’s character building. Meanwhile, the attention director Shi pays to detail and characters will appeal to those who do not normally watch the genre.
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