In June 2017, visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang went missing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Campus surveillance footage revealed that after missing a bus, Zhang accepted a ride from former Ph.D. student Brent Christensen, who was later charged with her kidnapping and murder and sentenced to life in prison after the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on the death penalty.
Her story and Christensen’s trial are detailed in a new documentary streaming online through Sunday as part of the Chicago International Film Festival.
But the filmmaker behind “Finding Yingying” say the documentary is more than a true crime story.
“[Yingying] was really caring, brilliant and mature,” said director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, who began filming the documentary as a graduate student at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.
“We wanted to show the audience how much her life has touched others because I think at the very beginning, there were a lot of news coverage on the crime investigation and the perpetrator, but this film really wanted to highlight Yingying’s life, celebrate her life, and we hope somehow it can preserve her legacy,” she said.
And beyond Zhang and her family, Brent Huffman, one of the film’s producers, says the documentary also explores the clash between Chinese and American cultures.
“The film does explore these dramatically different perspectives, especially when it comes to the death penalty,” Huffman said. “In China, hundreds of people can be put to death in one year and it can be an instantaneous thing without a trial ... in the U.S., [the death penalty] is very complicated and extremely rare.”