One tenet of Chinese culture is the strong reliance on dream interpretation and the ability of past souls to visit their families in this neuro-netherworld. As haunting as the disappearance of a young girl can be, the full force of devastation is felt when one family member explains her belief that the girl in question is still alive because she hasn’t visited her in dreams yet. It’s this state of purgatorial hell that shrouds a majority of Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s remarkably moving new documentary Finding Yingying as a family struggles to understand and then come to terms with the sudden disappearance of their only daughter while she attends a Chicago college in 2017.
Shi spells out the bright personality of missing Yingying early on, reading portions of her diary to reveal a curious but culturally frightened academic as she tries to adapt to her new life in America. The words and thoughts spelled out make her extraordinarily human, full of hope, love and childish ramblings that drip from the mind of every young person looking ahead to their dreamed life.
But then, she disappears, and Finding Yingying becomes a true-crime exploration of the last minutes anyone saw her, pieced together through CCTV footage and the eventual world-wide media explosion on both sides of the ocean that detail a widening gulf between the families who trust their sons and daughters to come to America and the painfully turgid law process that governs our land. Shi balances the political with the personal seamlessly, rightfully giving a majority of the film’s run time to Yingying’s committed family and boyfriend as they refuse to give up hope … even after it seems painfully clear there’s a monster in their midst.
Gaining traction earlier this year at South By Southwest, Finding Yingying is a tough watch and reminds us that the world is not always a dreamed life experience. But the way Shi remains fixed on the humanity of Yingying’s family and the small spotlight given to Yingying’s effervescent nature through her very personal hopes and dreams, she’s reclaimed some of that dream. Here’s hoping she visits her family in their dreams soon.
Finding Yingying screens virtually on Saturday, October 3.
Heather Ross’ For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close wisely doesn’t try to dissect the man completely. That could be an impossible feat. Or at least one not fit for a 90-minute foray. Here’s a man who largely embellished the stories around the suicide of his father. Here’s a man with a lifelong addiction to hard drugs and committals into psychiatric hospitals. Here’s a man booted out of both Second City and its Canadian cousin, SCTV for being too radical and/or unconventional.
But all of these troublesome aspects aside, Del Close was also an actor/graphic novelist/teaching guru who established “The Harold,” an improvisational method that has since become hugely influential in the acting world and touched the lives of many greats. Think “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and that (sort of) defines the loose intelligence of what Del was going after. Whatever shards of his manic style that contemporaries such as John Belushi, Tim Meadows, Jon Favreau, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Bill Murray gleaned and carried forward, many of them are on-hand in Ross’ film to cast praise on Del the man. And that respect to a largely unsung pop culture mover-and-shaker bleeds through every scene of this enjoyable film.
Rarely seen onscreen — his acting credits on IMDB include a mere 26 mentions in small roles in films as diverse as The Blob (1988), The Untouchables (1987) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — Close’s midas touch is most felt in the resonance of others. Although his major breakthrough in teaching came late in life alongside his partner Charna Halpern and their ImprovOlympic theater, For Madmen Only shows a wired genius from the very beginning of his life when he picked up flame eating and joined various carnivals at a young age.
Drifting to San Francisco in the late 1960s and then finding his manic edge in comedy with Chicago’s highly influential Second City, it seemed Close was on his way to something big. But drugs, a volatile temper, and a sense of genuine madness never allowed him to reach the heights of others. Actor Bob Odenkirk reveals a telling story of Del’s insouciance when, as a young college reporter, he runs into Del by accident and asks for an interview. Back in Del’s cramped apartment, Odenkirk inquires about a broken window allowing a frigid February wind inside. Del tells him a jealous husband broke it a month earlier and he’s just never gotten around to fixing it.
For Madmen Only is littered with these asides about Del, but also buttressed with the moments of greatness he so heartily shared with his students and peers. It’s a precarious back and forth that reveal so many shades to a complex, secondary giant in the world of comedy. Genius or madness? Even after seeing the film, I’m not sure. But it’s fun taking the journey.
For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close screens Saturday, October 3, at the Tin Star Drive In.
See https://videofest.org/festivals/docufest/ for schedule and ticketing.