Film Review: ‘People’s Republic of Desire’

Getting famous on China's social network
October 27, 2018 Updated: October 27, 2018

Chinese livestreaming might not have the weird fetish appeal of the Japanese idol industry, but the fake egalitarianism and built-in exploitation make it even more perverse. Popular hosts and singers on YY, a major video-based social network with 300 million-plus users, can make tens of thousands of dollars per month, but the system is still stacked against them. Molecular-biologist-turned-documentarian Hao Wu dives deep into the YY ecosystem in “People’s Republic of Desire,” which opens Nov. 30.

Shen Man is an up-and-coming YY host, who is the sole support of her unemployed father and stepmother. She will be a genuine contender during the annual YY competition because she has a number of well-heeled patrons and a major YY talent agency backing her.

If you read YY’s media kit, it probably makes the platform sound like an egalitarian place, where average folk determine who is successful with their votes and online buzz. In reality, they might be able to boost a host from obscurity to a modest following, but once big-dollar patrons start throwing online (but very real) money around the live-caster’s “showroom,” the serfs are effectively frozen out of the action.

Big Li in a scene from Peoples Republic of Desire
Big Li, also trying to break into the video-streaming network, in a scene from “People’s Republic of Desire.” (People’s Republic of Desire)

Big Li is maybe the last exception. He is considered the “diaosi” (a hard-to-translate term for a homely underclass male) who made good, the last of the hosts who has no agent but who will meaningfully compete in the YY contest. A win will bring online fame, as well as more sponsors and hopefully gifts, but it comes at a price. Agencies will spend hundreds of thousands of real dollars on online votes, which they charge back to clients, making the second place an expensive disappointment.

Director Wu follows both hosts through two competitions and a very messy year of scandals and personal strife in between. Wu’s approach is primarily sociological, with a special focus on the disenfranchised diaosi, who become increasingly disconnected from the livestreamers they helped build.

There is also a pronounced element of sexism in how female livestreamers are treated. Even top talent like Shen Man must regularly field vulgar comments, and many of their patrons clearly expect sexual favors in exchange for financial support.

A scene from People’s Republic of Desire.
A scene from “People’s Republic of Desire.” (People’s Republic of Desire)

However, we see enough of the inner workings of YY and major agencies (many of which seem to be bankrolled by sketchy underworld types) to know this racket is fishy. Frankly, someone should do a full-scale exposé of the Chinese livestreaming industry, but there is not exactly a robust tradition of investigative journalism on the Mainland.

“Desire” manages to make Western social media look less corrosive and divisive, which is definitely an achievement. As director and editor, Wu shows a keen eye for human drama, but still gives viewers a good summary of the bigger picture. He vividly illustrates the disparity between migrant workers and the oligarchical patron class, without belaboring the point.

“People’s Republic of Desire” is highly recommended as a snapshot of contemporary Mainland China’s society.

‘People’s Republic of Desire
Documentary
Director: Hao Wu
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Released: Nov. 30
Rated 4 stars

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com

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