In a digital universe where live streamers earn as much as 200,000 US$ a month, can virtual relationships replace real-life human connection? Join two online stars doing just that ‒ rising from isolation to fame and fortune in China. Brought together in a series of bizarre competitions, they discover that happiness in their virtual world may be as elusive as in the real one.
Winner of the documentary competition at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, as well as the Grand Prize at the Hawaii International Film Festival, People’s Republic of Desire examines the entire food chain feeding on this streaming idol phenomenon. The featured stars are Shen Man, an approachable former nurse who belts out pop tunes, and Big Li, a confident, manic comic with the mien of a Chinese Alex Jones. Supporting them are several rich donors who find purpose by pumping astonishing amounts of yuan into idol competitions. At the bottom are the actual fans, called diaosi (losers) ‒ largely lonely salaried workers who obsessively track their favorite idols on their glowing smartphones. As we work our way through this vicious ecosystem and learn what makes these participants tick, the film identifies the only winner: YY, the streaming platform, which generates extraordinary profits from the stars’ massive audience and the handsome share of donations it extracts.
Director Hao Wu’s previous film, The Road to Fame, screened at FEFF 2014, which was the inaugural year of the festival’s Documentary Sidebar. Wu’s background is a circuitous one ‒ With biology degrees from Chinese and U.S. universities and a further MBA from the University of Michigan, Wu is a scientist turned filmmaker and has U.S. residency. A well-known blogger, using the name Tian Yi, Wu was detained by Chinese authorities for some five months in early 2006. Commentary at the time of his detention said that Wu was by no means a dissident and in fact often defended the Chinese government. He may instead have been incarcerated in relation to his preparations for a documentary film on China’s underground Christians.
Regardless, his output as a filmmaker, especially one that peers into the many subcultures of modern China, has won him accolades and Hollywood notice leading to the filmmaker to be picked up by CAA for representation in both Beijing and the United States. With People’s Republic of Desire, Wu captures a darkly humorous portrait of an entire nation hooked on contrived entertainment and offers a despairing preview of what might be in store for us.