‘People’s Republic of Desire’ Film Review: Doc Takes a Chilling Look at China’s Live-Streaming Culture

Instant stars and instant has-beens are made in the virtual world, in a terrifying glimpse at what might be the future of human interaction

Last Updated: November 29, 2018 @ 11:19 AM

If you’ve had the sinking feeling that technology is about to engulf the world as we know it, and that the apocalypse is just around the corner, Hao Wu’s documentary, “People’s Republic of Desire,” is not going to make you feel any better. In fact, it’s likely to make you feel considerably worse.

It’s a well made and, at times, innovative film about the fame and fortune beckoning ordinary people in China’s live-streaming culture, but it plays like a scary science-fiction story come to life.

It’s not surprising that a culture of virtual celebrity would take hold in a country like China, with a population of 1.3 billion. An unavoidable sense of anonymity and loneliness has driven half a billion individuals to become vicarious observers of common people broadcasting their lives on the Internet. In this world, a host can become a “Goddess,” and a virtual birthday party can attract 500,000 “guests.” As one fanboy puts it, “In real life, things may be beyond your reach. But online, they are all possible.”

Virtual gathering places like the YY network have given anyone the opportunity to become a star for an adoring audience. Wu follows the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of two such stars. Shen Man, 21, is a cute nurse-turned-web-host who flirts, sings and bubbles her way to stardom. Big Li, 24, is an overweight everyman who clowns his way to fame. They are like hosts on late night TV or radio talk shows, where no real talent is required. But that doesn’t stop thousands of devoted fans from flocking to their virtual door. Everyone from wealthy donors to a younger generation known as diaosi (literally, losers) is attracted to the sizzle of fame.

Financially, it’s a windfall for all. Rich patrons give hosts elaborate gifts in exchange for a shout-out on the air, and sometimes more. Online celebrities can make as much as $200,000 a week, with the agency taking half of the profits. Overall, the industry is expected to generate $4.4 billion in revenues in 2018.

The challenge for the filmmaker is how to visually represent a symbiotic exchange in which not much is really happening. To solve the problem, Wu has come up with a clever strategy to make cyberspace come alive. Shen Man enters a non-descript showroom, applies some false eyelashes, dabs on some lipstick, fluffs her hair and the film takes off from there. Split computer screens, animation, flashing lights and a 3-D grid give life to the charade. The sensation is like being inside a video game, if that’s your kind of thing.

Wu also shoots real life outside the showroom to set up where these Internet heroes come from. A handful of supporting characters are interviewed, giving context to the runaway lives of the hosts. Big Li has a wife and a young son to whom he pays little attention. Shen Man’s father is a bankrupt entrepreneur, and her family is totally dependent on her. But perhaps most representative of what makes this world tick is Yong, an 18-year-old migrant worker who is deeply committed to Shen’s make-believe life. And for a couple of teenage girls wearing T-shirts with Shen’s image, she is a role model. It’s not that different from fans who are emotionally invested in a team or a performer, but in this case, a version of the star is yours for the taking –and giving.

The film leads up to a competition sponsored by the network in which supporters are encouraged to buy votes for their favorites. It’s a short shelf life for stars, and the fall is abrupt. When their popularity declines, Shen Man decides to take time off, and — in a rare moment of real human feeling — Big Li admits he misses his son. Authentic emotion is so rare here that any glimpse of it jumps off the screen.

Get-rich-quick schemes and instant stardom are part of human nature and the stuff of movies from the beginning. But what we witness in “People’s Republic” is human nature on steroids. It’s voracious capitalism at work, in which people are isolated and desperate for any kind of connection, real or artificial. There is an overwhelming need to be liked and validated.

Wu, a former technology executive, is clearly the right person in the right place at the right time. Inspired by the sci-fi series “Black Mirror” and bits and pieces of tech culture and reality TV, he captures the excitement of the virtual streaming culture. But in the end, “People’s Republic of Desire” is a chillingly sad document of where the human spirit currently is, and where it may be going.