Filmmaker Hao Wu’s documentary PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE, which just had its Quebec Premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival, makes me feel like an old white man locked up in the retirement home, patiently awaiting a sponge bath and diaper change. It’s hard enough for me to keep up with the Instergrans, the Goggles and the Slapchats of digital culture in the West, so it’s nice of Wu to give us a look at what’s popular in the East. But before we do anything else, let me update my MySpace profile….
Okay, now that I’ve added some flashing gifs and a loud song that plays when the page loads, we’re good to go. Where was I? Oh yeah! Live streaming video in China! Turns out it’s REALLY popular, with well over 300 million users spread across 400 platforms. PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE sets out to examine the phenomenon by focusing on one of the largest – YY.com – and some of the people involved, from high-paid streamers at the top of the ladder to the customers at the very bottom.
Considering how smoggy it is outside, and how teeming the streets are with throngs of people, it’s no wonder the Chinese youth has seen fit to hole themselves up in tiny rooms, bent at uncomfortable angles over glowing monitors while watching glamorous people get paid for performing simple mundanities. Men and women (“hosts” and “hostesses”) have their own shows where they do completely banal things like talk about what was on the sandwich they just ate, or singing along to pop music the way one might while rinsing off shampoo in the shower. Others are self-branded comedians, pulling in fans with single-person variety shows.
There’s big money in live streaming for these hosts. Ranking boards flash epileptically and digital cash counters spin into the millions as adoring audiences spend dollars they don’t have in a show of appreciation for their idols. It’s all a bit unsettling, and feels eerily like an episode of Black Mirror, but this is reality in China. Perhaps because sites like Facebook and YouTube are blocked in the Republic, live streaming has filled the social and technological void.
The live streaming audience is divided up into two groups. The “diaosi” – young men of mediocre appearance and low income who populate the chat rooms admiring what they can’t have, and the “tuhao”, the big spenders who regularly drop inordinate amounts of coin on the hosts and hostesses. It’s a strange ecosystem, where the diaosi thrive on watching the tuhao flash their cash in a way the diaosi never could.
In watching PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE, I found myself surprised by the overwhelming capitalistic attitudes – something I would have usually thought reserved for the West – as they shout loudly about how rich they are, and how rich their bosses are. Humility is a rare quantity over there it seems, but there’s so many people packed into their country that I guess there’s no time to mince words.
Hao Wu doesn’t shy away from the worst of the abuse. One of the main subjects of the film, Shen Man, is the target of a torrent of misogyny and body-shaming from her audience and other live streamers. It’s actually rather shocking. The brutal scrutiny that these folks suffer is enough to break them, and as PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE heads toward its conclusion in a high-stakes popularity contest, their sanity is put to the test.
Live streaming, in general, is a relatively new phenomenon, and Hao Wu has made decent roads into exploring the subject from a Chinese perspective. It’s an inexplicable, glittering, cash-hungry mania that I don’t pretend to understand. Even after the documentary ended, while informed, I still didn’t get why people were throwing so much money at YY.com but that’s not Hao Wu’s fault. It’s just because I’m crotchety and prefer traditional forms of entertainment. As I prefaced at the beginning of this review, I can barely keep up with digital trends in the West. I’m out of my league, and if live streaming is the future of entertainment, please, just give me peaceful dirt sleep.