People’s Republic of Desire film review: Yes, Black Mirror is already here
AUSTIN, Texas—If you've ever asked yourself how long a Black Mirror episode might take to turn into real life, the new documentary People's Republic of Desire has an answer: roughly four years.
Really, the best way to describe this feature-length look at Chinese Internet streamers is to point to the British series' first-season episode "Fifteen Million Merits," which aired in 2011 and starred Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya. The episode imagined a future, Internet-driven popularity contest that tore people's lives apart. According to the filmmakers behind People's Republic of Desire, that episode's level of life-bending insanity had already unfolded in China by 2015, fueled largely by the millions-strong video-sharing site YY. And the results aren't pretty.
The result, with its millimeter-range focus on major YY personalities, deservedly won this week's South by Southwest jury prize for best documentary. Though it leaves some questions and topics unexplored, People's Republic of Desire still delivers a fascinating, character-driven story that Internet fans in the West should pay particular heed to—especially as live-streaming services develop and mature on our side of the Pacific.
YY, for the uninitiated, works similarly to American video-streaming site Twitch in that it lets anybody create a channel, stream live video from their computer, operate a chat room, and accept real-money tips from viewers. But YY's initial and most popular focus wasn't on videos of people playing games or creating projects. YY's most popular hosts and stars focus primarily on streaming themselves talking, singing, or faking like radio-show hosts, with male and female hosts appealing to viewers for dramatically different reasons.
"I swear by my breasts—if I lie, they'll never develop!" That's 21-year-old woman Shen Man, a former nurse from the Chinese province of Chengdu, addressing a live chat room of over 10,000 YY users early in People's Republic of Desire. Shen is one of the service's highest-ranking stars, and her feed consists primarily of her singing over karaoke-caliber MIDI tracks with a pedestrian voice—pleasant, not pretty—while responding to her viewers in either pedestrian or sexually charged ways.
One donor admits to spending a whopping $2 million on YY stars.
A documentary camera focuses on one of Shen's highest-paying patrons as he watches her. She specifically calls this man out by his handle in an online feed, speaking of him in complimentary and suggestive ways, and the man's eyes roll into the back of his head as we watch him tap away at his mouse in response. With every tap, the film shows a superimposed image of various amounts of money appear (represented in the YY interface by diamond rings, cars, and airplanes, depending on the amount of money attached).
This donor admits to spending a whopping $2 million on YY stars since joining the network as a viewer. Others appear as talking heads with tallies like $500,000 and $700,000, and they each offer explanations. One admits that she needs "something to do other than buying stocks" while stroking a luxurious pet. The $2 million man very curtly and briefly explains where his excess of money comes from: "I'm a profiteer."
We come to find out that YY encourages money spending, in part, by building every user's spending habits into the site's interface. Shen describes it as a "love triangle," made up of three parts: hosts, "diaosis," and "tuhao." The term diaosi is Chinese slang for "loser," and that term has grown in popularity as a self-referential label for those who have banded together in response to China's newly emerging income gap. On YY, they fill up hosts' chat feeds with small gifts and endless banter.
Those users also find themselves attracted to hosts who receive big bucks in gifts from tuhao users (a Chinese slang term for the nation's "bling"-minded nouveau riche class). Those big spenders admit that there's appeal in feeling like a big dog in these diaosis-dominated chat rooms and receiving verbal adoration and recognition from hosts and diaosis alike.
PRoD presents all of this YY-triangle content with a dramatic, CGI-loaded mock-ups of the Web interface that looks like something out of a massive reality show. In real life, YY's interface is mostly white and homely, and the film smartly presents this fantastical, imaginary version of how fun and wild YY seems next to real-life footage of users glumly tapping away at phone and desktop interfaces.
“Of course I’m resentful”
The film's human element is driven by deep looks into two streamers' lives: Shen Man and Big Li. The latter is championed as a diaosi "hero" by his mostly male fans, a fact that he shouts out repeatedly in referring to his fans as a "nation" and "army."
Li plays a few incredible roles at once: a beloved loser (which fuels his Chinese online fame), a prodigal son (whose family applauds his fame but demands he do more), a reveler in fame, a mess of a father, and a bumbling child when pushed to extremes by his own insecurities. His story of rags-to-riches-to-worse is a spoiler minefield to describe at length, but it's ripe with incredible "I can't believe that actually happened" moments. One domestic abuse episode plays out right in front of the documentary's cameras, while another utter emotional meltdown is streamed to Li's thousands of online fans, in which he blurts to those throngs, "I only bring you disappointment."
“There are hidden rules in this world. [Tuhao] will ask to meet in person, or something else.”
Shen, meanwhile, juggles a massive amount of responsibility while amassing online fame. Yet she barely revels in the Hollywood-style life you'd expect of YY's most viewed starlet (who rakes in over $200,000 a month in the process). We see her walk a single red carpet at a YY-affiliated awards show, but otherwise, she's going out to average, slummy restaurants with no real-life friends her age. Instead, her deadbeat father hangs on with nothing in the way of "managing" or assisting in her fame. He's her only remaining parent after she grew estranged with her mother as a child, and she keeps him and a grandparent's home and bills paid for while simmering with resentment.
And while her father smiles and laughs to see her rack up viewers and money, Shen lets the filmmakers into the darker half of this patron-driven video service: "There are hidden rules in this world. [Tuhao] will ask to meet in person, or something else. Of course I'm resentful." Later in the film, online rumors emerge about a relationship she started with a patron, and fans in the chat room—who, throughout the film, are shown boldly talking about her body parts and calling her a whore—mock her for supposedly sleeping with someone who "only" contributed $300 as a YY fan. Shen responds directly to these chat insults by one-upping the jerk online commenters, sarcastically declaring that she's ready to sleep with anyone who gives her $300, no questions asked.
“Buying gifts is the only way”
Only one obsessive YY fan gets anything in the way of spotlight treatment. This makes sense to some extent, as it's not captivating stuff to watch a motorcycle-parts warehouse worker stare adoringly at his smartphone screen. But he's in PRoDfor a big reason: to show what depths YY fans will go to prop up their online heroes, to the tune of hundreds of dollars. For a nation whose migrant workers make roughly $400 a month in wages, that's no small sacrifice. But based on how this one fan's story is framed, it's hard to tell whether he's a rare outlier or whether YY is largely propped up by broke, obsessive streamer fans.
In some ways, the documentary treads well-worn ground about the price of fame—about issues like pressure, social detachment, fleeting success, and even plastic surgery. (Already by 21, Shen has gotten work on her nose, eyes, and other parts of her face.) PRoD also tries to make fans' love of these talk shows look like an example of computer-driven isolation, and in some scenes—when rooms full of young Chinese people stare at streaming sites while sitting side by side—that feeling comes through loud and clear. But at other times, like when one fan admits, "I'm not lonely—I can watch Big Li," I'm reminded of similar American fandom for talk show hosts like Howard Stern. (Though, again, Howard Stern has probably never had his fans say things like this Shen Li fan's quote: "if you want to interact with her, buying gifts is the only way.")
PRoD doesn't necessarily do a good job making a case that these Web stars—who operate from their own homes and appear to control their own creative output—have it particularly worse than Hollywood or music-industry stars dragged through a public-eye wringer or behind-closed-doors sexual misconduct. And the movie leaves questions about Chinese government intervention untouched—which is a bizarre oversight when talking about a service that dances so brazenly with sexuality and fans connecting as "armies."
But the filmmakers' access to Shen and Li, as examples of "average" Chinese citizens turning into massive celebrities, does a lot to sell PRoD's story of how YY deliberately games these stars' lives and output for maximum profits. YY, we eventually find out, takes a whopping 60-percent cut of all site donations. Its users allege that YY sorts all streamer rankings and advertising based not on general, year-round stats, but on how well each host does during the site's annual 15-day streamer-popularity contest. We see two of these contests play out, and these are full of hosts begging and pleading with viewers to dump millions of dollars of real money into "votes."
Eventually, that $2 million donor from earlier reappears in a new role: as a promoter and agent, who pumps his own energy, time, and even donation money into stars' contest funds in order to game the system. This doesn't quite work out during the 2016 contest that marks the film's conclusion, in which two high-ranking YY stars spend millions of their own dollars on securing a top rank on the site. "Only the platform is the winner," the agent says, and then he gestures to the two highest-ranked stars on an interface. "Two fucking losers."
Eastern online services have always led the charge with in-game and in-app purchases, while Western games and apps have slowly ramped up their own use of them. PRoD's most compelling impact is in showing us exactly what could play out, for fans and creators alike, if the online economy falls headlong into a complicated tangle of content, money, popularity, and sense of inclusion.
People's Republic Of Desire had its world premiere at South By Southwest 2018 and is not currently slated for wide distribution.