From a consumer standpoint, there’s been much to enjoy about the internet’s unregulated, wild west status since its invention, but director Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire shows a surreal, disturbing flipside to all the good the world wide web has brought. Wu follows the growing phenomenon of live streaming in China, where people host shows on a webcam and receive gifts from fans who watch and interact with them via a live chat room. Some hosts can earn over one hundred thousand dollars per month from live streaming, but Wu presents this new, growing part of the internet as something more sinister than exciting; it’s an ungodly mix of an unregulated communication platform with a largely unregulated capitalist economy, using narcissism and empty entertainment to prey on the hopes and dreams of people in the lower rungs of society.
Wu tries to pare down the complexities of the live streaming platform as much as possible in order to explain how the streaming platform works. The majority of viewers are called diaosi, a slang term used for people from lower class backgrounds with no prospect for a successful future (one of these viewers describes working a job that pays $400 and gives 2 days off per month). The diaosi watch and donate small amounts to hosts they like, and a higher class called tuhao—described as rich but lacking any real cultural value—makes big donations to hosts in order to receive adulation from the poor masses of viewers. Wu presents all of this information, along with portraying the streaming service itself, through computer generated imagery that makes the internet look like some kind of void where avatars hurl gifts at the screen. It looks cheap and bizarre at first, but as the film continues it becomes a fitting visualization for a part of our world that feels completely disconnected from reality.
Taking place over two years, Wu profiles two hosts trying to win the streaming service’s annual competition where viewers vote for the best host and hostess. Shen Man, a young nurse who quit nursing to pursue success through streaming, finds herself resenting the fact that her family relies on her income for support, and comedian Big Li becomes so consumed with winning best host that it threatens to destroy his marriage. Wu edits their stories into clean, rags-to-riches-to-rags narratives, and doesn’t have to do much when it comes to highlighting how strange the whole situation is (both Shen Man and Big Li find themselves dependent on a system that has no tangible value and can turn on them just as fast as it embraced them). Things only get darker as Wu dives further into the live streaming business, learning about predatory agencies and talent managers who try to pocket as much money for themselves as possible, all of it shown with a frankness that generates an uncomfortable disconnect with the material. Dystopias usually take place in the near or far away future, but People’s Republic of Desire makes an unsettling case that we might already be living in one.