People's Republic of Desire

If you’re anything like me and the thought that you’ve accidentally Instagram Live-d your makeup routine induces sudden nausea, than making a living by live-streaming is probably not one of your career goals. But for the subjects of Hao Wu‘s documentary People’s Republic of Desire, live-streaming isn’t just how they make their living, it’s how they make up their sense of self. Though I am unable to get past my inhibitions, I will gladly watch other people sit on their couch and answer the questions that roll in on the screen. It’s become increasingly easier to check out of your life for a moment and check in to someone else’s. But the line between voyeurism and escapism is a thin one that is barely toed by the subjects in Wu’s documentary.

People’s Republic narrows its focus to two young hosts on a live-streaming social network called YY. There is no comparable equivalent in North America (Sean Parker’s Airtime never really broke through), but in China it is frequented by over 300 million users and hosts can make upwards of $20,000 a month if they tap into the right demographic. From the glimpses we get of it in the documentary, karaoke and comedic bits are the main forms of entertainment on the site.

A lot of the comedy and basic allure of the social network gets lost in translation. For instance, former nurse and now full-time YY host Shen Man has a pleasant voice, but doesn’t appear to have the kind of charisma or vocal ability to suggest a star in the making. And Big Li, with his boisterous rants and playful bits, comes across a man-child whose appeal lies in his ordinariness. In fact, many of his devoted fans are self-described diaosi, a label that denotes working class “losers.” These diaosi worship Shen Man and Big Li and tip them with what little money they have in the hopes of getting a shout-out live on air. Unlike a gambling habit that partially hinges on the hope that you will make a fortune, these super-fans are essentially donating money they don’t have in order to feel apart of an experience they’ve given up hope of achieving. It’s a shame then, that Wu doesn’t devote more time to these loyal blue-collar fans.

People's Republic of Desire 2

But what he does focus on is worthy of attention and, well, alarm. The filmmaker does not present technology as an equalizing tool that permits poor, hard-working people to achieve fortune and fame, or even modest income. Rather, he takes the Black Mirror approach. There are numerous snippets in which fans and hosts confess to feeling “disconnected” and “lonely,” which feels too on the nose at times. But that’s mostly due to the fact that they feel like soundbites, rather than deeper explorations of their experiences online. Later, disturbing anecdotes about hosts live-streaming their suicide attempts and subsequent recovery end up feeling tacked on for shock value. But the film is certainly ambitious in its scope as it tries to piece together the sometimes odious world of live-streaming.

The main thrust of Wu’s film is the marketplace at the centre of YY. Unlike Twitter and Instagram celebrities, the follower/host relationship is markedly transactional. For many, that exchange is the main attraction. Many diaosi describe their marvel at watching big donors give away hundreds of thousands, if not millions in one go. And those big donors love feeling in control of the hosts they give to. The documentary doesn’t get too specific, but the donors seem to suggest that they can make certain demands of the hosts they give to, some of them sexual. Indeed, YY bears a lot of resemblance to camming, but the sex happens off-screen.

The film’s last third is centered around an annual tournament for the hosts. Whomever can accumulate the most money and votes wins. Wu is keen to point out (as he does many times) that hosts can lose money of their own. But they continue to buy their own votes, some of them participating in the tournament year after year, out of desperation. If you want to win, you have to put your skin in the game – sometimes literally.

Pointing out the blurred lines between offline and online has become as cliche as pointing out the blurred lines between fiction and documentary. What is real and what is performed can seem irrelevant when both get equal attention. But when Wu begins the film in a training camp for live-streaming hosts, why does he leave so suddenly? Why can’t we share in what these wannabe hosts learn about presenting themselves to the webcam?

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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