On an ordinary morning in 2016, more than 540,000 people in China watched a live-streamed video of a baby eating breakfast. And while the baby was adorable — everything about the toddler’s image, from her bowl cut to her penguin t-shirt, engineered for maximum cuteness — we’re not exactly talking about the moon landing, here. More than half a million people (some presumably with babies of their own) stopped what they were doing, checked out of their lives for a couple of minutes, and gawped at someone clumsily mashing food into her mouth.
This incident is referenced as a brief aside in Hao Wu’s “People’s Republic of Desire,” the newly crowned winner of SXSW 2018’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize, and it might be this bleak film’s most benign example of humanity’s shift from real to virtual spaces — swiftly becoming one of the 21st century’s great migrations. Tragic and terrifying in equal measure, Wu’s intimate portrait of China’s live-streaming culture uses one country’s recent past as a dark portal into our collective future, sketching a world in which even the most basic pleasures of human connection can only be experienced vicariously.
An homage to “Black Mirror” that renders the dystopian show completely redundant, “People’s Republic of Desire” narrows its focus on a live-streaming platform called YY. The company is already listed on NASDAQ when the film begins in 2014, but it was smaller back then, more of a niche than a nationwide phenomenon. Anyone can sign up for the social media service, but — unlike Twitter or Instagram — the relationship that users cultivate with their followers is colored by an explicitly transactional element, as fans are encouraged to tip their video idols with silly digital trinkets that cost very real money (it’s essentially a PG-13 version of cam pornography).
That’s how 21-year-old Shen Man earns $40,000 per month sitting at a dank cubicle and singing karaoke for strangers. A working class girl whose single dad has been unemployed for years, she’s quickly leveraged her persona into riches the likes of which most Americans could never imagine. Shen Man, by her own admittance, isn’t a rare talent or a striking beauty — she may never have made it as a traditional pop star — but it’s possible that her popularity stems from that same ordinariness, enshrining her as an idol for a generation of young men and women who’ve grown too disillusioned to believe in their own dreams.
There’s even a slang term for people who have little prospects for a better future, Diaosi, and it’s often used to self-identify. This group loves to celebrate their own, which explains the popularity of 24-year-old Big Li, a pot-bellied comedian who’s obsessed with winning an annual competition for the country’s top live-streamer. We don’t get to see much of his act, and jokes are often lost in translation, but it seems roughly on par with Shen Man’s singing (he wears a clown wig, slaps his gut, and screams a lot). He makes $60,000 a month.
The fame and fortune that Shen Man and Big Li have acquired should be an affirmation that technology offers an unprecedented opportunity for Chinese people to climb out of their class, but Wu portrays a country where upward mobility creates a strange kind of backdraft. Money almost seems less coveted than it is worshipped. Some of the film’s most interesting subjects are the fat cats who spend millions on their favorite streamers. These are people who got rich in ways they don’t want to discuss, and live for the reverence they buy from Shen Man and her ilk. A few of them want sex, to be sure, but others are just happy to put a price on affection.
Even more absurd and depressing are the poor people who lurk in the live chats and learn to enjoy watching other people spend the money they can’t afford to shell out themselves. Poor people like Yong, a lonely Big Li superfan who makes $400 a month serving tea to huffy men at a mahjong parlor in the middle of nowhere. He’s at the bottom tier of an emotional pyramid scheme, a step lower — or higher? — from the girl who devotes $800 per month to her favorite star on a $600 per month salary.
Wu, who collected footage for more than two years, underestimates our interest in these working stiffs and the psychology that drives their addiction. Similarly, the stars seldom discuss how they feel about their fans. It’s possible that Wu cut around the topic, but it seems more plausible that it just didn’t come up. And it’s hard to blame the likes of Big Li for that, especially when live-streaming gets co-opted by deep-pocketed agencies who spend millions on their own stars in order to spur greater popularity (not unlike the practice of buying Twitter followers). Human capital becomes harder to see clearly every day.
Wu restores a sobering degree of clarity to that equation with a series of handy graphics, digital artist Eric Jordan helping him to simplify the visual busyness of the YY platform and illustrate how the money flows between its various players. There’s something immediately sinister about these screens, and it’s not just the the scary music that Wu uses to underscore how unnerved we should feel (a flourish that makes it frustratingly difficult to appreciate how people get sucked into all this). As the film goes on, Wu subtly begins to introduce his graphics into vérité footage, creating an augmented reality in which the digital world literally subsumes the analog one.
The hyper-speed chat on Big Li’s screen is replaced by a rendering of the financially dependent feedback loop that connects him to his fans, millions of them staring into a screen in the hopes of sharing a small fragment of an experience they no longer try to find for themselves. If not for Wu’s camera, even Big Li would be all by himself (“I miss my son” he sobs in the film’s rawest scene). Like lab mice who can’t stop jamming the lever that gives them a tiny dopamine hit, people would rather sate their desires than fulfill them. Wu’s fascinating, deeply alarming film ushers us into a bold new world where our pleasure is simulated, but our pain is real.
“The People’s Republic of Desire” premiered at SXSW 2018. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.