Certainly one of the stranger subjects for a documentary can be found in the latest work from director Hao Wu, People’s Republic of Desire, which attempts to make sense of a generation of Chinese youth who have grown up with (and in many cases, been raised by) their phones. In their virtual world, friendships and gathering places are almost entirely online, leaving those in the real world alone and often unable to communicate face to face with others. Specifically, the film looks at online hosts, who seem to do little more than crack jokes and talk to their followers and accept adoration and virtual “gifts” from those who can afford it. Their popularity seems to be determined by how many rich people basically hand them money and how much that impresses the rest of their poorer fans who can’t.
A Jury Prize winner at the SXSW Film Festival, the movie centers on two such online celebrities—a female singer and a male comedian (who might be the least funny comic I’ve ever seen—working for the same online company. Both of them are contestants in a voting showdown where fans must pay to cast a vote to determine the most popular hosts. But when so-called “agents”—basically just super-wealthy patrons—get involved, the buying of votes becomes a real (and completely legal) issue that builds up as many careers as it tears down. Apparently, the more these agencies spend on you, the more impressed the other fans are, and then they also seem more willing to spend money to vote.
The film does a remarkable job of attempting to make sense of something that simply doesn’t. None of it is real. All the hosts talk about is making money, which I guess gives hope to the millions of isolated migrant workers—who seem to make up a huge percentage of the fandom—that they too may rise from nothing to become rich and famous. But the entire system also ruins reputations of hosts who may go too far to get money, and soon rumors and the court of public opinion take over and viewers start to vanish, which takes its toll on the streams themselves. It’s a nasty cycle of reward and punishment that seems so unnecessary, and is destroying the fabric of a socially challenged culture. There were times when I genuinely thought I was watching science fiction and not a place and scenario that exists in the present day. The ultimate experience of People’s Republic of Desire is exhausting, eye-opening and slightly terrifying. I’ll fully admit, I didn’t really care what happened to these self-obsessed dopes, but that doesn’t make their journey any less fascinating.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque. Filmmaker Hao Wu will be at Facets for audience Q&As after the 6:30pm and 9pm screenings today. In addition, Rachel DeWoskin, award-winning author and assistant professor of practice in the arts at the University of Chicago, will be present for the 6:30pm screening.