Review: ‘People’s Republic of Desire’ Offers A Damning Look at Popular Online Culture

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This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

People’s Republic of Desire is a documentary that follows two live streamers, Shen Man and Big Li, as they pursue digital fame via YY, a Chinese live streaming platform where individuals construct online personalities with the hopes of attracting followers, donors, and managers. As their fame grows, they become more and more obsessed with being number one streamers on the site, resulting in a detachment from the world around them. As they descend into their obsessions, we see how the digital realm has not only redefined notions of success and human connection for those who host, but also for those that watch. 

More than anything, the People’s Republic of Desire does a good job of presenting the dystopian aspects of this online culture. Hosts create online personas that distance themselves from reality to the point where they only find happiness in the admiration of their fan base. That fan base is divided into a two-part hierarchy: the Tuhaos and the Diaosi. The Tuhaos (the rich) donate money to the hosts so they themselves can gain popularity within the chat. The Diaosi (the poor) are the onlookers who watch the Tuhaos flaunt their economic wealth while the hosts get richer. The driving notion behind this is that to become more popular, you need more Tuhaos and agents funding you so you look more successful and thus attract more fans. 

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It’s a vicious cycle where wealth is prioritized in sickening ways. Imagine Twitch, but with an increased emphasis on money, and that’s what YY is. It’s an online culture that promotes extreme amounts of wealth as the only way of being desirable and the more you involve yourself, the more your personal psyche is affected. The doc effectively conveys what can happen to a host who flies too close to the sun, who finds tremendous success only to let themselves down when they don’t outperform their prior records or the earnings of others. 

Big Li and Shen Man both compete in an annual competition on YY where they must earn votes from their fan base to be deemed numbers ones, but since votes are earned with money, it is essentially a flexing competition where hosts show how great they are through the donations received from their Tuhaos and their agents. Soaring into the millions of dollars, money is thrown around like nobody’s business and it really showcases the culture of opulence found in these live streams. Human beings aren’t judged on their actions, but rather their net worth, and for these hosts, that’s everything. To be wanted in a digital space is more than being desired in the real one, and this notion is true not only on this platform but others as well. The film provides a much-needed introspective about people’s online habits.

Much of the doc is concerned with a digital space. From Michael Mann’s Black Hat to Ralph Breaks the Internet, we have seen digital spaces rendered in many forms. On film, these spaces aren’t the easiest to convey visually, but in People’s Republic of Desire, the live streams are represented with digitally rendered chat rooms. Flashy, busy, and brimming with activity, these CGI renders help visualize a live stream in ways that a screen capture could not. While they can compliment real-life footage, they can also detract from it. It would appear that these digital renders stand in for a lack of footage and act as means to convey events which were not captured on film. This dependency detracts from the realism of the doc because much of what we are being told is constructed digitally; certain scenes work better with the reactions and verbal depictions from our characters rather than the artifice presented to us. This is a major concern when the annual YY competition takes place and most of what we are given are renders that show the back and forth battles between hosts; why can’t I see a tension played out in reality that ties more closely to the subjects? It is a mere stylistic choice perhaps, but in a medium that aims to show a real-life subject using real footage, these digital depictions are hit or miss in their usage.

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The film is also somewhat one-sided in its depiction of this destructive culture. While we get plenty about the hosts and their managers, we get only brief glimpses about the impact on the viewers. One of the important elements of this dynamic is the viewership and the impact this culture has on them. The viewers, particularly the poorer ones, idolize these hosts and show how their rise has warped their perceptions of success and instilled bizarre social norms. This notion is loosely touched on as we only get stunted interviews with younger viewership, transitional news clips about their destructive behavior, and an underdeveloped portion that follows Yang, an 18-year-old migrant worker who worships these hosts. In this sense, the doc is contained, and it would have benefited from a better depiction of the wider social impact.

These two complaints are not a condemnation of the overall doc. Hao Wu has made a film that shines a light on the evolving social culture taking place online. Throughout, you find yourself amazed, repulsed, and occasionally shocked at this digital culture that has spread to millions of people, and perhaps more critically, you may take a look at your own online habits and wonder how those compare to something so socially damaging as this.

3.5/5 STARS

People’s Republic of Desire opens on December 14th at Northwest Film Forum. Details can be found here.