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People's Republic of Desire
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by Jay Seaver

"Worth several likes."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Us older folks should probably be paying much more attention to the cultures represented in this documentary, both online and Chinese, than we do; both are huge, misunderstood, and often dismissed. I'm not sure I truly understand it now, but I've got a better handle on what I don't know, and got some interesting stories to boot.

Take, for example, Shen Dan, a. twenty-something singer in Chengdu; "Big Li", a comedian in Hebei; and Fan Yong, an 18 year old "diaosi" (Chinese slang for a low-mobility loser) in a factory town. All are livestream hosts on the YY platform, monetizing their internet celebrity from both small fan donations and larger gifts from "Tubao", described by some as having money but no culture. YY has exploded in recent years, to the point where there are trainers, managers, and syndicates sprouting up, as well as an annual competition to see who can get the most views and donations on one busy day. It's a boom-and-bust business that was new enough as director Hao Wu started shooting that nobody knew how to navigate it just yet.

These livestream hosts are not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, of course; the West has its own YouTube celebrities whose popularity baffles the parents of their generally young audience and who can see their streams go from hobby to lucrative business to albatross depending on the site's monetization policies. As with a lot of things, though, the Chinese version seems accelerated, as these new means to have a voice and make (or spend!) some money are pounced upon by people without a whole lot of pre-existing ideas about the proper way to do this. The story Wu seems to be showing us most is one of how instant fame, in any medium, consumes the authenticity that initially gained someone an audience, and few know how to navigate that, either in terms of staying true to themselves or making their hobby into a small business - although there's plenty of space for the possessiveness of fans and how the people that make a platform like YY viable literally beg for money.

There's a lot to be gleaned from watching the film, but they way it's put together impresses; this is a well-constructed documentary very much in sync with its topic. The standard pieces, such as interview and fly-on-the-wall footage, are nicely shot and edited, often to specifically contrast the stars' conspicuous consumption with how their fans just scrape by, but it embraces being online better than most. YY itself is kind of invisible, and what's happening in a scene is often distributed across the country. This movie must visualize as much as depict, and it does so very well, creating lively, energetic graphics that are clear, explanatory, and appropriate just enough of the vocabulary of electronic games to use the audience's familiarity without reducing what their seeing to something unreal.

I like that it doesn't fall behind - it seems like it started out examining YY and the live-streaming phenomenon but found the platform maturing and monetizing beyond its roots, and was able to pivot to talk about that as well. Any attempt to capture a true story must inevitably have to deal with events outside the ones that the chroniclers planned on depicting, but Internet culture moves particularly fast; it's impressive that people working in this sometimes slow-moving medium was able to keep up.

I must confess that I still don't entirely get the appeal of watching livestreams, but fandom has always been an odd thing, and China itself is too big for one movie to truly capture its youth culture. But this is a big part of how large portions of the world relate, and "People's Republic of Desire" is a good, compelling primer on it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32040&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/22/18 10:52:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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