Movie Review: People's Republic of Desire (2018)
The girl in the poster looks trapped and she is. She’s Shen Man, a live-streaming star on YY.com, a Chinese social network that launched in 2005 mostly for gamers, then relaunched in the 2010s for a wider audience. I still don’t quite get it, to be honest. It has something called “hosts,” and fans follow these hosts. Some give them virtual gifts, which are somehow translated into real money, and in this way the hosts can make a living and even become rich. Sometimes the hosts have huge financial backers and if they’re popular enough (or financially backed enough?) they can enter an annual 15-day contest to determine who’s “best.”
How is best determined? By wittiest? Funniest? Sexiest?
By votes. Except you can also buy votes. And the richer you are the more votes you can buy. Think of it as American democracy after Citizens United, with Chinese versions of the Koch brothers solely interested in promoting this or that YY.com host rather than directing governmental policy. Why do they do it? Because they’re bored? Because it brings them status? Who knows? Director Wu Hao only talks to a few financial backers.
That’s my main complaint. I wanted a wider vision. I wanted more explanations as to the absurdities going on in front of me.
At the least, YY.com is aptly named. Watching, I kept going “Why? Why?”
Start with the two hosts who make up the brunt of the doc.
Shen Man is a former nurse who’s had cosmetic surgery to look prettier, but she’s still no Zhao Xun. She flirts with and whines to her fans, and has tens of thousands of followers, some of whom are encouraging, some of whom are just assholes (“Show us your tits,” etc.). Big Li, meanwhile, is always referred to as “a comic” but in the many times we hear him hosting his live-streaming show, I think I laughed maybe once. Mostly he cajoles and complains and cheerleads. For what exactly? For him—and his audience. They’re a kind of a team—the downtrodden and ignored. The way I root for the Seattle Mariners, Chinese provincials root for Big Li. Similarly, he disappoints.
How did they get to this position in the first place? I’m not sure. I don’t think they’re sure. A wider vision, maybe showing us marginal hosts with only a handful of fans, would at least give us something to compare to. But I get the feeling Shen Man and Big Li are where they are because they were first. The first ones through the wall may get bloody, per “Moneyball,” but the first ones through the technological door don’t have to be particularly talented. See early movie, radio and TV stars. See the early stars of YouTube and Instagram.
Fame and fortune don’t exactly make them happy, either. Shen Man winds up supporting her father, who comes to live with her. Big Li visits his relatives in the provinces and promises to make them all proud. It’s like he’s talking to his fanbase rather than his family.
Their isolation increases. We see them in their apartments and live-streaming from their apartments, and that’s about it. As the movie progresses, each gets more sallow and unhealthy. We long for them to get outside. We long for us to get outside.
The doc is bookended by two “best of” competitions. In the first, Shen Man wins without much effort but Big Li is blindsided by a new competitor, Picasso, with a wealthy patron. The loss doesn’t bring out the best in him. He spends months licking his wounds, then plans a comeback with his own wealthy benefactor. Doesn’t help. In the second 15-day competition, not only does Picasso swamp him but he falls into massive debt— something like a million dollars—because he owes his benefactor some percentage of the votes bought for him ... or something. Either way, he's ruined. We flash back to the beginning of the doc, with Li, a former migrant worker, riding through Beijing in the backseat of a town car, smoking a cigar and wearing shades, and feeling full of himself. We expected comeuppance but not a million dollars worth.
In her match, Shen Man loses, too, but she’s smarter, or more risk-averse, and drops out sooner. But she’s still distraught; her self-worth is gone. At the end of the doc, talking to her fans, those men who often encourage her to take off her clothes, she finally reveals herself—not without clothes but without makeup. It’s the movie’s one healthy act.
“People’s Republic of Desire” does what documentaries are supposed to do: It gave me a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. It's also a world I know everything about. It’s about the desire for wealth and fame, yes, but at bottom it’s about loneliness and isolation. It’s about the urge to connect, and how social media taps into this urge and never assuages it. Social media is to connection like salt water is to thirst. We drink and we drink, and we wonder why we keep getting thirstier.