CIFF Dispatch: Finding YingYing, Notturno, Kubrick By Kubrick

On the afternoon of June 9, 2017, Yingying Zhang, a native Chinese student attending the University of Illinois, was traveling by bus to sign a new lease for her apartment. She was never seen again. Being from Illinois, I was very aware of Zhang’s disappearance. It was a tragic story that permeated two countries: America and China. At the time, I was also in a long-term relationship with a Chinese student who matched Zhang in quite a few ways: both attended Peking University (albeit three years apart), they were accomplished singers, and they arrived in America for graduate school. 

I’ve dreaded watching Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi’s harrowing documentary Finding Yingying since its premiere at SXSW. Mostly because of how closely I knew the documentary would hit me, even though no harm befell the woman I once dated. Now showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, my hesitations were confirmed. Shi’s Finding Yingying is a heartbreaking and tender reexamination of not only a tragedy, but a thoughtful memorial to a life unlived. 

In her directorial debut, Shi admirably avoids true crime clichés. For instance, in most true crime movies, the filmmaker’s attention turns solely to the perpetrator. Usually, these documentaries want to dramatize the phrase, “beyond a reasonable doubt” and can’t help but be drawn to the bewildering aura of the criminal. Conversely, the person who usually suffers most in these documentaries is the victim.

To give us a sense of the student’s struggles with loneliness and her hope for the future, Shi narrates Zhang’s heartfelt diary entries. She also connects with Zhang’s U of I colleagues Yan and Guofang. But it’s the entry of Zhang’s family: her boyfriend Xiaolin, father Ronggao and inconsolable mother Lifeng — that sinks even a hollow heart to tearful depths. Through them, Shi inspects the American justice system — which it can be said imposes an undue burden on the family of victims — the death penalty, and the various ways the death of a child affects those left behind, in the family’s two year search for justice. 

While Shi might lightly explore the pressures of globalization, the focus of Shi’s film is solely on Zhang. Through the cctv footage of Zhang running for her bus, we can’t help but feel the enormous weight of fate’s cruel turn. We’re not only left with a “what if:” what if Zhang hadn’t missed her bus — but the haunting specter of “why.” Shi’s Finding Yingying should come with complimentary napkins. It’s a sad story, yet an even more fitting tribute.   

You probably won’t find a prettier film than director Gianfranco Rosi’s war documentary Notturno. Rosi’s compositions are simply stunning. Take one of the opening shots, which sees a man, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, riding on a motorbike down a dirt road. He looks as though he’s from a different era. The motorbike is certainly old. The rifle is even older. And he wears a kind of safari hat. His appearance juxtaposes with the oil fields in the background of his dirt road ride. At the end of his journey, he comes to a nearly dried up river bed, where a canoe hides in the brush. As he paddles to a larger body of water, the spatter of machine gun fire blends in as organically as the sounds of crickets and toads — as though nature incubated the trio on the same day. With a sunkist colored night sky reflecting off the water, we’re hypnotized by the striking image. But beyond the aesthetic marks, why is Rosi relying on a frank backdrop?

The balance between striking aesthetics and the on the nose interpretation of its imagery undoes much of Rosi’s film. Captured over the course of three years along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, Notturno is an antiwar film investigating the effects of ISIS in the Middle East. To plumb these effects, Rosi traverses across armed trenches, a psychiatric ward, and a child therapy session. Each offers an arresting position, especially the children who use their drawings to describe the atrocities ISIS committed. But as distressing as these images are, they’re so clearly composed for maximum effect, that Rosi undercuts their natural power by deriving a manufactured essence. These are countries torn apart. These are families pulled apart. And these are minds left shredded. There needn’t be an added sheen to lend them weight. In Rosi’s pursuit to win hearts and eyes, with Notturno, the heart beats inauthentically. 

There are plenty of documentaries about Stanley Kubrick. For instance, Tony Zierra’s Filmworker recounted the Barry Lyndon-actor Leon Vitali’s experiences as the director’s personal assistant. Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 examines The Shining, and the love its mysteries have engendered upon cinephiles. The charming S Is for Stanley interviews the filmmaker’s personal driver Emilio D’Alessandro. These films each take a unique strand of either Kubrick’s life or his art to better inform our views of the auteur. But in Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick, the loose frame is a series of unheard interviews conducted over the course of 20 years by French film critic Michel Ciment. Yet the result isn’t insightful enough to separate itself from other films on the same subject.  

The audio from the interviews play from a tape recorder, set on a table in the bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Using the set piece as the documentary’s backdrop serves as a summarization for the myriad of themes common in Kubrickian study: the preoccupation with death, idyllic eras and people ruptured by conflict, and the omnilike God as director. Beyond the sleek design, which sees posters for Kubrick’s major films hanging on the bedroom wall, the information mined from the interviews are hardly revelatory. Common clips from his works are mixed with archived interviews with the actors who worked with him, such as Tom Cruise, Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson, and Shelley Duvall (though Duvall’s portions do feel fairly sanitized because they’re pretty much glowing approvals of the director’s methods). Kubrick was notably weary when it came to approving interviews, so it’s a rarity to hear his voice. Unsuspectingly, his words are colored by a sincere yet reedy tone. Still, there’s not a sense that we’re getting an unvarnished version of the filmmaker in these interviews. Instead, they say little about his psychology. Rather than setting itself apart from other Kubrick-based documentaries, Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick isn’t more than a loose highlight reel of the director’s career buttressed by a fairly flat interview.  

Official selections of the 56th Chicago International Film Festival

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