If you enter yy.com into your search bar, you’ll likely be greeted with someone young, Chinese, and immaculately lit. They’ll be speaking or singing, telling jokes, offering commentary, giving lessons, playing music, or dancing. This time, on a Wednesday afternoon, I’m watching a twenty-something croon calmly into a microphone, her ponytail pulled back, earphones in, hands clasped together in a living room in a flat somewhere in China. She flips to an electronic interface—her own computer screen—and scrolls down a chatlog, thanking people intermittently, presumably for their donations. This is probably her sole source of income—some live-streamers here earn as much as $60,000 a month. And yet this site and this community, outside of China, is exceptionally unknown. Its Wikipedia page runs just one paragraph long, though it boasts an average of 87 million monthly users.
Hao Wu’s documentary People’s Republic of Desire capitalizes on this dichotomous glitch, monopolising filmically this world of digital glamour. Following from The Road to Fame (2013), his similarly cutthroat foray into the world of musical theatre, Wu fixes his lens on two live-streaming hosts on the YY platform—doe-eyed, candy-sweet Shen Man, who sings fetchingly at a small pink webcam lodged on her computer frame, and affable dark horse Big Li, whose clamorous comedy routine appeals winningly to the common mob. Both earn enough to support their families; both are venerated by a loyal following. We are introduced to Li sporting a gold speckled blazer: a man in a camo-green cap spreads foundation on his cheeks and adjusts his hair, as he prepares for a performance. Adjusting his webcam, downing deep-shade aviators, and with an idle cigarette in hand, he spouts his welcome to more than a hundred thousand fans. The film spins into a digital interface, the numbers rise, and the gifts start flooding in.
The film is endlessly hyperstylised—text bubbles appear on top of phones, small gadgety icons spin out of a computer mouse, the giant faces of live-streamers float through a blue, algorithmic space, giving off, even to the most technologically-challenged viewers, a whiff of the immersive, dystopian techno-richness reminiscent of Black Mirror. Submerged in artificial gaudiness, Desire enters a world in and of itself: instead of recording the interface of YY, Wu chooses to show the web platform as a digital (and richly metaphorical) room in which live-streamers are projected onto giant screens, alongside spinning trophies, flickering numbers, and rolling chat messages. On the floor, spanning into the distance, are the spectators, rendered as avatars: the cement-grey ‘diaosis’, described on TV as “young people of poor looks and low income”, and the colourful ‘tuhau’, rich fans that splurge in the thousands, dollar signs rising triumphantly above their heads. Their exorbitant spending morphs them into heroes in their own right, cornucopias of vicarious indulgence for the diaosis. It’s hard to miss the stench of idol worship at play—the real-world hardships of underprivileged diaosis are anaesthetized by this seemingly vacuous, escapist entertainment—Big Li’s routine consists mostly of shouting into a microphone; Shen Man hints proudly at the inevitability of a boob job—another plastic operation to add to the facial refurbishments of her nose, eyes, chin and temples.
Despite this, and despite the crass stylistic distractions of Desire, there does lie sensitivity and substance embedded deep in this community. The film’s rare, heartening moments showcase this—two fanboys, at an annual Big Li fan meet-up chatter happily about their experience. “Other than Big Li, when I watch other hosts, regardless of gender, looks, or how well they sing, I have no feelings for them,” says one fan. “None at all. I only have feelings for Big Li…” The other laughs and cuts him off. “Let’s shake hands first.” They get each other. These brief inflections of optimism paint a more complex and less sceptical portrait of what feels, at face value, deplorably empty. While the film intermittently skips from fan to fan, offering small, grim insights into their working class lives, Wu sacrifices their plight for the inane thrills of Li and Shen’s narrative — a marriage breakdown and attempts to win the annual YY competition, among them. This directorial decision falls too close to deification to not be hypocritical.
Wu’s mostly glass-eyed filmic observations also allow Desire to remain safely in shallow waters, never truly interrogating its subjects in a way that could lead to revelation. The most interesting reflection on these streamers falls in the latter part of the film, in a sequence where Wu films Shen Man as she is being interviewed by a television reporter. As she talks about the moment she became able to buy a car for her father, she puts her head in her hands and starts to cry. Afterwards, she dabs her face with a tissue and folds it carefully on her lap. “Are you happy?” the reporter then asks. Shen answers, nodding, sincere: “I’m happy. Compared to many others, I think I should be happy.” The camera stills. It’s a raw moment. But the stark rarity of such authenticity feels less an indictment of the live-streaming community than of the film that purports to capture it.