In the brave new world of “People’s Republic of Desire,” marginally talented performers can acquire legions of passionately devoted fans and accumulate staggering sums of money simply by live-streaming to millions who seek the comfort of virtual relationships. All they have to do is sing, joke, read text messages, or simply be in front of a webcam, and periodically remind their followers to leave tips by purchasing one or more of the avatars flashing on their computer screens.
A running total of said purchases also is visible, along with the names of those paying tribute, and entertainers repeatedly express gratitude for the cash flow. Whenever the tip is sufficiently huge — which often happens when a wealthy admirer wants to stand out from the crowd — the benefactor receives a personalized shout-out.
And by the way: “People’s Republic of Desire” isn’t a dystopian sci-fi drama or a consumer-culture satire. It’s a documentary. Director Hao Wu bombards viewers with an abundance of jazzy video-game-style graphics, inside-baseball details, and often disquieting anthropological observations in this sometimes facile but more often fascinating film about a unique new online idol-making craze in contemporary China — a phenomenon many will recognize as an only-slightly-more-extreme version of Twitch and other for-profit live-cam platforms where exhibitionists, audiences, and exploiters come together in the West.
Filmed in cities throughout China between 2014 and 2016, a period of rapidly evolving socioeconomic changes, “People’s Republic of Desire” casts a critical eye at the various ripple effects triggered by the rise of a live-streaming platform called YY. Thanks to YY, anyone capable of discarding inhibitions and accessing a webcam could attract and maintain an audience of millions — provided, of course, they had the intangible right stuff to transform casual fans into cult-like fanatics.
Wu devotes most of his documentary to charting the private lives and online careers of two improbable streaming celebrities.
Shen Man, a 21-year-old former nurse, is attractive but not quite beautiful — even after she avails herself of surgical enhancement — and her singing abilities suggest a perennial runner-up in karaoke contests. But her ordinariness seems to be a major reason for her immense popularity with young women who identify with her, and men of all ages with more craven desires. She teasingly acknowledges her limitations — “I swear by my breasts! If I lie, they’ll stop growing!” — even as she manipulates her fans into financing a comfortable life for herself and her bankrupt, gravy-training father.
Big Li, a rowdy and increasingly rotund comic, claims his own sizable fan base with shameless shtick and full-throated rants that are especially appealing to the key demographic of diaosi — underemployed self-described “losers” who reward revered streaming superstars like Big Li (and Shen Man) with all the money they can afford to tip, and more. Big Li, widely viewed as a poster boy for rags-to-riches upward mobility, is obsessed with winning an annual tournament in which streaming celebrities compete to see who can raise the most money from their followers. The financial reward means a lot to him. But proof of love from his fan base means much more.
Indeed, as Wu gradually reveals, and then tirelessly emphasizes, celebrities can actually lose money while competing in the popularity contest, since they routinely invest their own income — or at least what they have left after agencies that support their careers and the folks at YY get their cut — in the digital equivalent of vote-buying. Money may not buy happiness, but it might rent an equally satisfying sensation.
Winner of the documentary competition at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, “People’s Republic of Desire” attempts to be exhaustively inclusive as it explores the myriad links in a symbiotic food chain where big spenders seek to impress other fans as much as (if not more than) the entertainers they tip, where diaosi customarily view those hefty donations to their favorites as confirmations of their taste — really, confirmations of themselves — and where even the most revered streaming celebrities can instantly lose thousands of fans (and thousands of dollars) if gossip, baseless or otherwise, erupts unexpectedly.
There are times when the abundance of information is overwhelming, and other times when you can’t help suspecting Wu — a tech execu turned U.S.-based filmmaker — simply wasn’t in the right place at the right time with his camera to capture everything he might have wanted to capture. At its frequent best, however, “People’s Republic of Desire” is provocative and unsettling as it brings us on a guided tour through the digital marketplace for something resembling human contact.