Imagine the last 20 years of American pop culture on fast-forward. Now imagine the last 50 years of American history all happening at the same time. Neither of those statements can fully capture the experience of life in contemporary China, which director Hao Wu—a Chinese-American tech executive turned documentarian—depicts as consumerist to the point of surrealism in his new documentary, People’s Republic Of Desire. For his third feature on the ever-changing Chinese cultural landscape, Wu weaves together the stories of two live-streaming stars, a manager, and a devoted fan to form a portrait not only of the extreme acceleration that defines contemporary Chinese pop culture, but also the bizarre fantasy economy and parasitic interdependencies of late capitalism as a whole.
The content of Chinese live-streaming shows can vary widely, from explicitly sexual to family-friendly and from off the cuff to elaborately scripted. The most common is a unique form of entertainment best described as a cross between vlogging and talk radio: Self-made online celebrities spend hours every day in front of their webcams interacting with fans, who express their admiration with virtual “lollipops” and “flowers” representing small sums of real cash. Top performers have tens of thousands of fans who faithfully log on every day to spend time with their favorite hosts, who can represent anything from an idealized digital “girlfriend” to a relatable drinking buddy in the minds of lonely, cash-strapped factory workers living in company dormitories very far from home (to name just one of China’s myriad economic subcultures).
This unfiltered access to online celebrities leads to extremes of both adoration and abuse, as in the case of Shen Man, a beautiful, talented 21-year-old singer who’s one of the most popular hosts in all of China. Shen Man makes nearly half a million U.S. dollars a year answering fans’ questions and singing pop songs in her ultra-girly bedroom. (For now—she notes at one point that by the time she’s 25, her career will be over.) But to do that, she has to tolerate a foul torrent of slut-shaming, leering comments, and misogynist vitriol that grows alongside her popularity. By the time she’s voted the No. 1 hostess on popular streaming site YY, it’s nearly impossible for her to have friends, date, or even leave the house. She also supports her entire family and works every day of the week, struggling to appear cheerful on camera while her off-camera life is stressful and isolated.
The male host who’s the other focus of the film, 24-year-old Big Li, is a comedian whose appeal to his mostly male audience comes from his status as a self-proclaimed “daosi,” Mandarin slang for a loser with no prospects. Big Li’s fans find hope in seeing a fellow loser make good, though Li himself is prone to periods of deep depression exacerbated by his perpetual underdog status in the live-streaming celebrity ecosystem. Like Shen Man, Big Li has many people who depend on him, and his family members in the countryside brag about their rich and famous relative in the big city. He isn’t bound to his apartment the same way Shen Man is, but he is equally trapped—both as the dutiful son upholding ancient patriarchal values and as a reluctant example of the new, capitalist Chinese dream.
Both subjects are hiding their misery in order to give ordinary citizens, many of whom make less than $500 U.S. a month and tithe a significant portion of that to their favorite hosts, a respite from theirs. Further complicating the dynamic are “kings,” anonymous members of the nouveau riche (“tuhao” in Mandarin) who spend outrageous sums on hosts in exchange for the adoration of ordinary fans, who get a vicarious thrill at watching people they consider their social betters throw money around. One patron who goes by the name of “Songge” says he’s dropped more than $2 million on live-streaming, adding that he recently cut his spending down to “only” $35,000 a month. Big spenders like Songge have become celebrities in their own rights, and other patrons have opened “talent agencies” to groom their own private stables of current and future live-streaming stars.
Adding to the complexity is the cottage industry of managers, makeup artists, coaches, and streaming facilities that have popped up to accommodate—or take advantage of—desperate young people who join live-streaming sites dreaming of quick cash and, eventually, upward mobility. All this converges in an intense, cutthroat two-week competition held every December in which losers and kings alike can buy votes, each costing a few yuan, for their favorite hosts, who beg for votes in emotional live-streaming marathons. (One woman interviewed for the documentary estimates she’ll spend around $800 U.S. buying votes for the competition, $200 more than her monthly income.) The hosts with the most votes in different, vaguely defined categories like Best Male Idol and Best Hostess are awarded statuettes in a televised awards ceremony—not to mention the respect of their fans, for whom money and talent have become inextricably intertwined.
Wu illustrates this unbridled orgy of Pavlovian consumerism with extended clips from live-streaming sessions, enhanced with 3D motion graphics that streamline and illuminate the bright, loud, confusing (from the outside; once you get used to it, it’s apparently addictive) experience of using a Chinese live-streaming site. That’s combined with revealing documentary footage that starts broad and becomes more focused on Shen Man and Big Li as People’s Republic Of Desire wears on. The focus narrows as well, from social commentary to individual cautionary tales, which is both a relief—the sheer visual stimulation of the film’s manic first third is overwhelming—and a bit of a thematic setback. Whether on purpose or simply due to lack of access, the “daosi” interviewed at the film’s outset fade like so many pixels on a computer screen in favor of the film’s celebrities, which plays as much as a meta-commentary on fame and worth as anything else in the film.
People’s Republic Of Desire keeps its focus entirely on mainland China, but this is no mere ethnographic curiosity. Between the documentary’s premiere in March at SXSW and its theatrical release this week, Amazon’s live-streaming site Twitch set a new record for its biggest stream yet, as 628,000 people tuned in to watch popular vlogger Tyler “Ninja” Blevins play Fortnite with Drake and Travis Scott. Viewership on Twitch grew 21 percent in the first quarter of 2018, and tipping on the site rose 33 percent in that quarter as well. For better or for worse—probably for worse, if this film is any indication—we’re all hurtling toward the hyper-capitalist techno-dystopia together.