Sunday, March 11, 2018

SXSW ’18: People’s Republic of Desire

Chinese live-streaming might not have the weird fetish appeal of the Japanese idol industry, but the fake egalitarianism and built-in exploitation make it even more perverse. Popular hosts and singers on the YY streaming platform can make tens of thousands of dollars per month, but the system is still stacked against them. Molecular biologist-turned documentarian Hao Wu dives deep into the YY ecosystem in People’s Republic of Desire (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s SXSW.

Shen Man is an up-and-coming YY host, who is the sole support of her unemployed father and step-mother. She will be a genuine contender during the annual YY competition, because she has a number of well-heeled patrons and a major YY talent agency backing her. If you read YY’s media kit, it probably makes the platform sound like an egalitarian place, where average folk determine who is successful with their votes and on-line buzz. In reality, they might be able to boost a host from obscurity to a modest following, but once big-dollar patrons start throwing online (but very real) money around the live-caster’s “showroom,” the serfs are effectively frozen out of the action.

Big Li is maybe the last exception. He is considered the “diaosi” (a hard to translate term for a homely underclass male) who made good. He is the last of the unagented hosts who will meaningfully compete in the YY contest. A win will bring online fame, as well as more sponsors and hopefully gifts, but it comes at a price. Agencies will spend hundreds of thousands ofreal dollars on online votes, which they charge back to clients, making second place an expensive disappointment.

Wu follows both hosts through two competitions and a very messy year of scandals and personal strife in between. Wu’s approach is primarily sociological, with a special focus on the disenfranchised diaosi, who become increasingly disconnected from the live-streamers they helped build. There is also a pronounced element of sexism in how female live-streamers are treated. Even top talent like Shen Man must regularly field vulgar comments and many of their patrons clearly expect sexual favors in exchange for financial support.

However, we see enough of the inner workings of YY and major agencies (many of whom seem to be bankrolled by sketchy underworld types) to know this racket is fishy. Frankly, someone should do a full-scale expose of the Chinese live-streaming industry, but there is not exactly a robust tradition of investigative journalism on the Mainland.

Desire manages to make Western social media look less corrosive and divisive, which is definitely quite an achievement. As director and editor, Wu shows a keen eye for human drama, but still gives viewers a good overview of the bigger picture. He vividly illustrates the disparity between migrant workers and the oligarchical patron class, without belaboring the point. Highly recommended as a snapshot of contemporary Mainland society, People’s Republic of Desire screens again this afternoon (3/11) and Wednesday (3/14) during SXSW ’18.