The last communication with someone directly preceding their death is something that is ingrained in the brain forever. In the case of one of my best childhood friends, who died in a flash-flood near Joshua Tree National Park, it was a text message I sent him of a wedding I was at for another one of our mutual childhood friends — a wedding he couldn’t make. The message didn’t contain any words, just a picture of our friends group from when we were kids. It’s still there on my phone. My friend died in an accident that wasn’t the fault of anyone. Because of circumstance, timing, nature or — in the case of my more religious parents — the unfortunate acts of God were at play.
To die at the hands of another person is a whole different set of pain points, none in competition, just different. They come from and result in a whole different set of painful questions. The family and friends of the late Yingying Zhang — a 26-year-old Chinese student who was kidnapped and murdered in 2017 — have to contend with the fact that she was not the victim of chance but the victim of hate. The cause of death was human. Finding Yingying, a heartbreaking documentary on the subject’s legacy, reveals the human face of death and how our perceptions of mortality and connections with each other are constantly at a razor’s edge.
In Finding Yingying, the ambitions of a young PhD student from China and the fears and uncertainties of being alone in a foreign land collide. Through Yingying’s diary entries, read aloud by her friend and the film’s director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, viewers are introduced to someone who has a positive and determined outlook on her own future but who keeps her insecurities and doubt in mind as she navigates her school work. It can be a daunting task to excel when communication and socialization prove to be difficult, but Yingying found a group of friends, even a supportive and caring boyfriend in Hou Xiaolin, to keep her company. Comfort and familiarity are crucial to feeling at home in a university.
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The experience of being in America became forever shattered for Yingying, her friends and her family when she was abducted by a man, taken to his apartment, raped and killed. While Finding Yingying follows along the search of Yingying’s body, led by her boyfriend who speaks passionately about her and about justice, the search in closed quarters is for an answer that exists beyond a physical presence. Scenes of Yingying’s parents and family members in China showing frustration with themselves and each other, lashing out in violent rhetoric — her grandfather suggests they kidnap an American and kill him — all point to something innately human. We tend to want to solve problems in haste, find answers through any means possible, for only to end the excruciating pain that pierces our insides every moment. Just to make it stop, we look for anything.
When the San Diego authorities sent out a search-party for my friend’s body, the despair from his parents and others was aimed at the unknown. What events could’ve lead up to this? How is nature, God, the way the world works, so cruel? With Yingying, the culprit is a person, and because he is a human, the assumption is that there must be an answer — a thought process, an ideology, a reason. Humans are not a mystery the way nature is. Or at least, they’re not supposed to be. Sequences of the killer at the university’s psychiatric unit explaining that he has thoughts of murders, going so far as to say he had written down plans to kill people, raise flags and sirens. Yingying’s boyfriend aims for the death penalty for the killer and it’s a completely understandable want even if it’s not something that will innately lead to greater justice. Finding Yingying doesn’t try to offer answers that it can’t manifest in reality, and instead allows the legacy of its subject to lead the way, through intimate diary entries, by pondering the important questions of who we want to be, for each other and for our communities.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.