'People's Republic of Desire': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Reckoning the cost of fame.

Hao Wu’s third documentary on China’s evolving cultural traits examines the entertainers and fans devoted to online live-streaming.

Every day in China, millions of people log on to hundreds of live-streaming websites to interact with their favorite celebrities and fellow fans. Only most of these stars are ordinary people just like them who happen to have some intermediate level of talent that they’re not shy about sharing online. The other traits that separate them from everyone else are primarily a determination to succeed and a high tolerance for rejection. With People's Republic of Desire, filmmaker Hao Wu delves into this rapidly expanding virtual ecosystem of live-streaming performers and discovers the darker side of celebrity in a revealing examination of contemporary Chinese internet culture.

With a business model less than a half-decade old, the live-streaming industry relies on a variety of online platforms that provide chat rooms for entertainers to perform and communicate directly with their followers. These fans show their appreciation for their favored stars by purchasing virtual gifts that put real money in the recipients’ bank accounts. Multiple layers of other players and profiteers feed the system and many of them directly benefit as well. The result is an obsessive entertainment subculture that generates billions of dollars in revenue annually.

Singer Shen Man, 21, lives in the western city of Chengdu and trained for a career in nursing before she discovered live-streaming and repurposed her serviceable karaoke skills to become an entertainer. Cute and a bit naive, she doesn’t hesitate to entreat her online devotees to support her by buying more gifts, offering an emotive song to inspire them. A boorish comedian with a loud voice and an uncultured manner, Big Li, 24, also counts legions of fans, primarily among the youthful diaosi, self-identified “losers” from ordinary families working dead-end jobs. Equipped with only a laptop webcam, a microphone and a brazen sense of entitlement, the performers’ task is to separate their fans from their weekly paychecks.

Both hosts are featured on the NASDAQ-listed YY.com social media network and streaming platform as they strive to decipher the complexities of the industry so they can wrest a living from their supporters, along with some degree of fame. For these performers, the next rung up the ladder is partnering with an agency that will support their careers so that they, too, can aspire to earning a couple of million dollars a year. With each successive business relationship, their profit opportunities improve, but they’re also required to share a larger cut of earnings as well.

There's a lot riding on their success, since both have families that rely primarily on each host’s income. Shen Man’s dad has retired since his business went bankrupt and now depends on her for support, along with his wife and younger daughter, who’s preparing to attend university with her sister’s financial assistance. Big Li’s wife, a talent manager for the YY network, understands her husband’s struggles, but still expects him to help out his family back home and provide for their young son so they can maintain their comfortable lifestyle in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou.

It’s actually possible for them to succeed as long as their fans are supporting them. Many at the lowest level of the live-streaming hierarchy earn less than $500 a month at menial jobs or in the service sector. The big spenders, though, contribute thousands of dollars a month toward their host’s popularity in a confounding competition of conspicuous spending.

Hao Wu, a former executive at Alibaba Group, infuses his third documentary on China’s contemporary cultural trends with an insider’s perspective on a rapidly developing technology. His interviews with Shen Man and Big Li favor an informal approach, visiting them at home or chatting over a restaurant meal. As a result, not a lot of specifics about their business strategies are elicited and the performers spend a good deal of time complaining about the various personal and financial pressures inflicted by their chosen profession.

Profiles of some of their devoted fans reveal an almost obsessive level of competition for the approval of their idols, leading them to spend lavishly on the gifts required to curry favor. A substantial portion of the film is devoted to clips of entertainers hosting their shows and sometimes confusing 3D-animated sequences attempting to simulate the streaming environment to demonstrate the complex relationships between fans and performers.

Although live-streaming entertainment may convey the impression of a rather creatively and intellectually impoverished subculture, it’s one that provides comfort and camaraderie for millions who already feel ignored and isolated by China’s rapidly evolving standards of status and wealth.

Production company: Tripod Media
Director-producer: Hao Wu
Executive producers: Jean Tsien, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen
Director of photography: Hao Wu
Editor: Hao Wu
Music: Michael Tuller
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

94 minutes