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About five minutes into Hao Wu’s “People’s Republic of Desire,” after you see live-streaming performers file into tiny offices to entertain hundreds of millions of people after being told that if they do their jobs well, they will “live like goddesses,” it hits you: This is a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.
And yet, it is happening right now. Indeed, much of this material is a few years old.
In China, in online live-streaming showrooms (meaning someone’s bedroom or home office with laptop webcam and decent microphone), thousands of folks — some talented, some pretty, some charismatic, and some none of the above — log on and live-stream, well, whatever it is they feel like, in an attempt to get the time and money of hundreds of millions of potential fans. These programs are a bit like real-time talk shows, complete with interaction with an online audience.
Some fans are members of China’s ever-emerging super-rich class, who lavish gifts on their favorite performers and act like sponsors. Stars can make millions of dollars a year through the purchase of “gifts” that translate into real money for the performers. The performers aren’t “camgirls” — there isn’t a visual pornographic element (or if there is, Wu doesn’t talk about it — though it is strongly implied that one performer has had real-life relationships with several financial supporters). A two-week competition, in which votes are literally bought, determines who is the most popular performer.
Far, far more fans (as in, millions more) are extremely poor, often migrant workers looking for fandom, community and connection. These are the diaosi, sort of a combination of “loser” and “nerd,” young folks working dead end jobs who can’t afford to support their favorite performers financially but still want to contribute here and there. Many of them make less than $500 a month.
Mercifully, Wu spends a fair amount of time explaining how all of this works, often using clever animation. “Desire” focuses on performers on the seemingly all-powerful YY.Com social media network and streaming platform. If performers get enough fans and attention, an agency will want to sponsor them in the hopes of making even more money (and taking a piece in the process.)
Singer Shen Man, 21, who lives in the city of Chengdu, is young and cute and has an OK voice and has absolutely no problem asking for gifts. Her bankrupt father has moved in with her — it’s a little hard to tell if she wants him there or if he is simply taking advantage of her.
Big Li, 24, from Guangzhou, has the bluster and voice of a classic American shock jock and a strong diaosi-made-good vibe. His wife, who seems older and is definitely more mature than her husband, is a talent manager for YY and must balance concern for her clients and traditional wife-and-mother stuff.
Wu follows the ins and outs of both careers, including interviews with both a megarich sponsor and a few diaosi, and man alive, we are in serious cyberpunk-as-everyday-life territory here.
Indeed, the deeply weird world of “Desire” make a perfect companion piece to another South by Southwest film: “Ready Player One.”
“People’s Republic of Desire” had its world premiere March 10 and won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW 2018.