People’s Republic of Desire

There’s a profound sadness I can’t help but feel for the subjects of Hao Wu’s documentary People’s Republic of Desire. Wu dives pretty deep in the world of live-streaming in China on a platform known as YY (similar to Twitch and Mixer) and making celebrities of its online personalities, like YouTube. YY hosts a large roster of China’s prettiest and most charismatic citizens engaged in a battle for popularity and big money.

The documentary opens in an office building, where each room is set-up with a computer, webcam, and microphone. Descending the stairwell are a large group of young, pretty woman reminiscent of HBO’s Cathouse (not that I would know what that show is), but instead of selling their bodies, they are being trained to sell their sex appeal and personalities. The group is taught by a coach in the art of conversation, holding attention, and getting gifts from her viewers.

YY is part of an incredibly fascinating social economy. Starting with the host, in this case, an amateur singer Shen Man. As her live stream begins, she starts her show with a little update of her life, responds to chat messages from her viewers, and sings a song. Just like in the States, comments start as encouraging taking a quick dark turn with trolling comments. In this particular session, 25,000 viewers tune in to Shen Man’s show. At one point, she dispels rumors that she’s romantically involved with her talent manager. She, in fact, “swears by her breasts” that they’ll stop growing as proof no relationship exists.

Shen Man makes her money when viewers buy virtual gifts with money and give it to her. The patron receives recognition for the gift by Shen and the other viewers. Shen and YY then split the proceeds. Off camera, Shen lives with and supports her father. As she earns more money from YY, more relatives come out of the woodwork, and Shen feels obligated to help them as well.

“…instead of selling their bodies, they are being trained to sell their sex appeal and personalities.”

Men also make money as talent managers of a stable of hosts. They are referred to as the Big Boss. The doc follows veteran big boss known as Big Li. He is a comedian who is self-deprecating and pokes fun at the young viewers with no money, calling them ugly and poor. These kids are called Diaosi. They have no money to gift to their favorite hosts, which is the reason for the light verbal abuse from Big Li.

The ones with the money for gifts are the Tuhao (almost like a Sugar Daddy). Rich men who lavish their favorite hosts with gifts and in return they receive special attention and VIP access. Sounds creepy, right? It’s basically a non-sexual version of adult sex sites…I think. I mean, how would I know…ha ha. Eh!

People’s Republic of Desire documents Shen Man and Big Li’s day-to-day life. Their shows are popular, but growing tired and repetitive. This is not good, especially as YY’s annual competition draws close, where all the hosts and big boss compete for supremacy. Sort of like a telethon where viewers pledge money and support for their favorite. If you want to stay in this game of popularity, you have to remain on top. As they say, “Here today, gone tomorrow.” Be number one or fade off into obscurity.

Hao Wu’s documentary is riveting on so many levels. First is YY’s elaborate online streaming platform. Lots of beautiful women, flashing buttons to press, and a steady stream of inane chat. Director Wu visually illustrates how this system works with stunning and easy-to-follow graphics and animation as if in the world of Wreck-It Ralph.

“…a psychological treatise on self-worth, and the lab rats are the citizens of China.”

Next is this billion dollar economy that runs through YY. Hosts and big bosses are making hundreds of thousands of dollars every month. The money comes from the Tuhao, who pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the system, and in return buy themselves ego strokes. You can’t help but in the end wonder when the bubble is going to burst, and the spigot of cash shuts off.

Lastly is the social structure of YY. Hosts make money like high-end street musicians. Every day and every show, each host feels the pressure to stay on the top of his/her game. Like social media, do or say the wrong thing and lose your fans. Then the gravy train makes its final stop. The divide between the rich and poor citizens in China is vast and the pressure and stress is incredibly intense for these individuals to maintain this luxurious standard of living they’re grown accustomed to.

Probably the most creepy element of this system is the rich Tuhao. They are the stereotypical fat cats with the big wallet. Thanks to China’s now-defunct One Child Policy, men significantly outnumber women. The Tuhao’s libido is fed by the visual feast of pretty girls, the gifts they give them, and the VIP treatment they receive. Their egos are stroked by showing off their lavishness in front of the Diasol, who idolize the wealthy.

The People’s Republic of Desire is a psychological treatise on self-worth, and the lab rats are the citizens of China. YY could be signs of what is to come in our world of internet celebrity. It should also serve as a warning of how close we are to the collapse of humanity (hyperbolic much…yes).

People’s Republic of Desire (2018) Directed by Hao Wu. Featuring Shen Man, Big Li.

8.5 out of 10 stars

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