The Exotic East rarely seems more exotic than in the first 30 minutes or so of “People’s Republic of Desire,” a new documentary about online life in China built around the Chinese obsession with live streaming “hostesses” and “hosts.”
It’s wacky. You scratch your head at the training ground, a veritable digital brothel (quite chaste) where aspiring hostesses learn the art. You wonder who on Earth would spend money for “gifts” that impress these young women (and young men), and are also meant to impress their fellow “fans” with how “rich” you are.
Then it all starts to look and sound eerily familiar. The sales pitch, the affected air of superiority, the vocal fry in the girlish voice of Shen Man, a 21 year old “nurse” turned singer (I should put quotes on that, too.) who interacts and entertains from her elaborate home web studio, and pulls in $40,000 a month, seems almost…American.
Throw in a few would-be rappers and an NBA has-been or two, give her a big bottom, and this on-line entrepreneur could be the Chinese Kardashian.
Then there’s Big Li, the chain-smoking screamer/weeper who sings along with the pop songs he plays, hits the fake “applause” or “laughter” button on his keyboard a little too often, who begs and cajoles his fans and “bosses” — well-heeled fans who lavish gifts on their favorites to make reputations for themselves — to buy buy BUY.
He’s Glenn Beck or Alex Jones without the InfoWars politics.
Director Hao Wu — he did “The Road to ‘Fame,'” about Chinese kids staging the musical “Fame” — focuses on these two, a few select fans and big bucks sponsors — over the course of a couple of years and two big popularity contests put on by the social media/game network YY. That’s the platform that all this streaming, gifting and transfer of wealth takes place on.
Hostess coach Dabao instructs her charges — “Keep your fans happy, make yourself look good…keep them engaged. Get gifts.”
And her star pupil, Shen Man, does her proud. She’s supporting her do-nothing dad and stepmother, uses a high-end Neuman microphone for her streaming cast, gets matching pink Maserati and Bentley automobiles (pictures shared, naturally), logs on and instantly 15,000 users join her.
“How big are your breasts?” one wants to know.
“Seeking one-night stand,” another suggests.
We see gawky boys talking about their online ideal and girls calling her their “role model.”
There’s a guy online with her all the time. Her sugar daddy?
“I swear by my breasts, he’s not my boyfriend,” she pleads, in Chinese with English subtitles. “If he is, may they stop growing!”
“People’s Republic of Desire” touches on the stuff that gets by Chinese censors — talking heads on a news show lamenting the end of upward social mobility in China and the rising ennui and despair of the hundreds of millions of working poor.
“Losers,” a certain US politician might call them. “Diaosi,” they call themselves — unattractive, not much to offer, they live vicariously through their favorite hosts or pine for the attention of their lusted-after hostesses.
Big Li is a self-described diaosi who made it big. Every host wants the attention of Tuhao — slang for China’s uncouth monied bourgeois. These fat cats — loan sharks, “privateers” and others of ill-gotten wealth — make names for themselves on YY championing and gifting their favorites. Gauche boors, “Duke” and “King” they call themselves, including the morbidly obese Songge. They throw around their money and get to hang with web celebrities which in turn makes them celebrated.
Hao Wu’s film charts the rise and fall of the hosts and hostesses, zeroing in on that make-or-break 15 day Annual YY Competition in which those hosts compete for attention and votes that translate to money. Best Female Hostess, best male host, best male idol, female idol etc. are named — based solely on money.
Wu saves his visit to the actual YY headquarters, where the REAL money is being made, for the third act. But along the way, both Big Li and Shen Man sees their reputations (such as they are) trashed, take desperate measures to get back their fame and restore their income, and like entrepreneurs everywhere — spend ridiculous amounts of time currying favor and raising promises of capital from their tuhao.
This fascinating deep-dive into Chinese online life captures frank admissions of “I’d sleep with you for money, but I already have money” and retinues back-slapping away the pain of rejection and declining fame.
There’s all this smoking smoking smoking, and young people stressing over nothing and going broke over nonsense.
Just like you see in the United States or anywhere else the web thrives and acquisitive capitalism feeds.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, sex talk
Cast: Shen Man, Dabao, Big Li,
Credits: Written and directed by Hao Wu. An Independent Lens release.
Running time: 1:35