People’s Republic of Desire
Directed and produced by Hao Wu
Released in 2018
Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles
95 minutes in duration
What is live streaming? Essentially it is live video broadcasting online.
With the help of the many available platforms today, almost anyone can have their own live streaming show. Some have even been able to make a living out of it and the elite few are able to make a very handsome living out of it. It’s not new; live streaming is done all around the world. But because of sheer volume, its popularity is exploding in China.
The way live streaming has caught on in China is what the documentary, People’s Republic of Desire, aims to showcase. The creator of this film, Hao Wu, gives us an inside look from the top, observing the most popular live streaming hosts who live extreme lives, including all their ups and downs.
Although not everyone involved with live streaming lives like these people, the rules of the game are the same, and the desires of the players are unchanged, just varying in degree.
There are over 400 platforms in China that total about 325 million users. In other words, almost one in four people in China are on some kind of live-streaming platform, either as a fan, a patron, or a host—those are the roles.
In tapping into the psyche of today’s netizen in China, live streaming has created an ecosystem fueled by extreme amounts of money, fame, and power. Patrons, who provide the main financial backing, have been known to spend up to US$500,000 to get recognition in return. Fans, including those living on almost nothing, are found throwing their meager earnings towards hosts that they idolize, spending over a month’s salary on a platform. Hosts become role models and instant celebrities, with lives suddenly transformed if they make it to the top.
To support this booming ecosystem, there are buildings full of studios for rent, just so people can have a space to live stream (if they cannot do it from their home). There are agencies, trainers, and managers who coach on how to secure fans, patrons, and keep the most exclusive and lucrative ones.
Each time before live streaming, rehearse, and make yourself look good. Keep your fans happy. Keep your patrons happy. Then you’ll live like goddesses.
—Dabao, Talent Manager
Most people run their live streaming like a podcast where they talk about a topic (or themselves), they sing, dance, model fashion, etc. However, to garner higher levels of attention with more provocative content, some have live streamed a burglary, their own suicide attempt, or their toddler-aged child eating. There are few limitations on what can be live streamed.
Hao Wu does a good job of featuring different perspectives, not just of those at the very top. He looks at Shen Man, a young female singer, and Big Li, a migrant construction worker turned celebrity host, and also at those who support, those who fund, and those who just wish to catch a speck of gold dust watching from far humbler circumstances.
In real life, perhaps many things are beyond your reach. But online, they are all possible.
—Big Li, celebrity host
At the same time, Hao Wu doesn’t hesitate to show that not all that glitters is gold. Both of the main characters face the reality of fast fame, big money, and meaninglessness.
Does this film depict everything there is to know about the live-streaming world in China? Absolutely not. What is shown does not represent everyone. But this film gives us insight into contemporary Chinese society and how desperately this generation in China longs to be seen, heard, and remembered.
These are all basic human desires but are probably heightened when there are normalized trends and avenues for people to stand out and rise to the top (especially in fast and superficial ways). When no one has a shot, it matters less that you’re not special. When everyone seems to be getting a chance, you can’t help but want yours too.
But let’s take a step back. Ultimately this is just another tool. To be able to bring people together in this way is a rather incredible thing.
How could it be used for good? Maybe some are already going down this path. It might not be as flashy and famous, but if this is educating, encouraging, informing, blessing people in ways they otherwise would not be reached—it might just be the conduit of hope that many desperately need.
Image credit: People's Republic of Desire trailer available on Vimeo.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit sector, …View Full Bio
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