“People’s Republic of Desire” is a documentary by Hao Wu that follows two webcam stars and their rise to the top of the Chinese social media site YY.com. If you haven’t heard of YY.com before, you aren’t alone. It is a Chinese website like YouTube but heavily monetized and always live. Youtube uses ads to make money, on YY viewers pay money to increase the rank of their favourite broadcaster which in the film are called hosts. YY.com has about one million hosts, young people who sing, dance, eat, or do almost anything that is legal online in China in front of a webcam. A huge fan base of about 300 million people follow these hosts daily. The other piece of the picture are the agents who coach and manage the hosts as they become popular. The entire site is based on a virtual gift economy, gifts that cost real money but are only digital icons, ranks or points. The stars make a portion of the money paid to the site something like twenty to forty percent and the rest goes to YY.com’s parent company.
The doc follows two up and coming YY.com stars, Shen Man and Big Li. Shen Man is a young woman maybe in her late teens or early twenties. Everyday she sits in her girly outfitted bedroom and sings for her millions of fans. Big Li is what I would call a lifestyle host. He talks about his life and daily challenges and connects with his fans on a more personal level. We spend some time with a few of Big Li’s fans and it’s clear that these young men are almost destitute and live in very poor conditions. But somehow they manage to buy Big Li virtual gifts and votes, in order to increase his social rank on the site and in turn, their own sense of achievement by being his fans or virtual friends.
Agents are the people who train and coach hosts on how to attract fans and often help their popularity with cash donations to their YY pages. We meet Shen Man’s agent, a woman who sees Shen in a way I found similar to the way a pageant mom would regard her own child. It is a strange relationship and we have to assume the Agents get a cut of the money from somewhere but the doc never explores that question.
There is a lot going on emotionally for these two stressed Chinese social media stars. Shen Man’s father lives with her and she takes care of him since he doesn’t work. Big Li and his wife are not getting along and their relationship is in trouble, mostly from Li’s stress of trying to win an annual popularity contest on YY which will mean a big payday for him. In one scene, we see how cruel Li can be to his wife when he calls her some horrible names and appears very neglectful towards her. It seems that his fame on YY is all that matters to him.
An aspect of this production that at first I found distracting but got used to is director Hao Wu’s use of computer graphics in the doc. Many shots in the film are composed with the YY star in the background in a framed video window surrounded by virtual icons and chat bubbles that represent users. It’s a cyberpunk style presentation that I found chintzy at first, but you get used to it. I would prefer more time spent with Shen Man or Big Li and perhaps some more in-depth questions about their lives. Having said that the film doesn’t go too deep into the unsettling subject matter it hints at. Even the fans we meet, we don’t learn a lot about them other that they are obsessed with the stars they follow and give most of their money to hosts on a regular basis.
Director Hao Wu has created a dynamic documentary that is an interesting look into this Chinese social media site that I would wager most people outside of China have never heard of. So, in that regard, it’s a very unique film. I get the feeling that he didn’t go very deep with the hosts or fans perhaps for political reasons. The interview with YY.com’s CEO is the biggest hint that this film attempts to portray YY as a neutral element in the host’s lives, which isn’t responsible for the troubles the hosts or fans face. I wish Hao Wu would have asked more invasive questions with the CEO but it’s possible that would have jeopardized his interview. China’s laws and government aren’t something I want to talk about in this review, but I can say it is very different from what we experience in North America or Europe. I believe the director wanted to tell the story of how these young people’s lives are damaged by being a part of this online lifestyle; he just didn’t go as far as I hoped he would with the subjects. The film has a fly-on-the-wall approach instead of a direct question and answer interview documentary.
“People’s Republic of Desire” is a very interesting documentary that left me with a sense of hopelessness for the hosts who work on the site. Even the small glimpse into the lives of the fans show us what kind of lives they have and how empty they are. One of the hosts the film follows ends up leaving the site and we don’t find out what happens to them. I found the doc left me with a lot of questions about the hosts and YY.com. Sadly, we don’t get answers to many of the darker or more in-depth issues that this film touches on. “People’s Republic of Desire” is unique doc and you will enjoy this film if you are interested in social media and online personalities and the lives they live on and offline.