I thought I knew the depths of frustration, anxiety, and loneliness. I was wrong — childishly wrong — on all counts.
Hao Wu’s documentary “People’s Republic of Desire,” opening Dec. 14 at the Northwest Film Forum, gives us a glimpse of post-Revolutionary mainland China. So post-Revolution that nobody talks about the people sharing in anything. Not in labor, the fruits of labor, happiness or satisfaction.
No, this is a a modern, online world where the consumers, through their keyboards, give almost everything they have to their online heroes, people who have become internet celebrities, streaming live through webcams.
Talent agents at YY.com carefully select these heroes, regular people who are groomed and positioned to rake in money through with their online, streaming personalities. Only a slice of the pie goes to those heroes, in the end. YY Inc. sits back and profits.
Several days a week, several hours a day, the internet celebrities, known as hosts, log in to their laptops and greet their online fans. The more popular hosts have upwards of 100,000 fans. For several hours, they go through whatever shtick they’ve cooked up to keep fans hooked.
A young lady who goes by Shen Man smiles, giggles, flirts and lip-syncs to top Mandarin pop songs into her camera. Big Li, a large fellow with a large laugh, tells jokes about himself, makes funny noises, and merrily calls everyone a loser — himself definitely included.
Fans tune in to watch Big Li, Shen Man and other YY.com hosts on their own devices. They send messages to host, and the host decides who gets a reply. Fans can purchase gifts for the hosts — clothing, jewelry — from lists displayed online. Of course, fans can also just send cash. Rich fans sometimes give hosts excessive amounts of money, in some cases enough money to feed several families for a year. The poor fans — millions of the working poor tune in — give large percentages of their monthly incomes.
Big Li has a hoarse voice and a winning knack for comedy. He grew up rough and worked rough.
Shen Man is propping up her family, after her father lost his business and went bankrupt. He’s often hovering in the background as Shen Man does her thing online. In this, director Wu’s shows the viewer, causally but forthrightly, the difference between the illusion the hosts struggle to create and their reality.
Such dynamics — between the illusion of celebrity and its underlying reality — aren’t new, naturally, and they aren’t particular to China. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon says, “People pay money to see others believe in themselves.” We look to professional sports, movie stars, TV stars, reality-TV stars, even religious leaders. Many of us build our lives around those other folks who got big enough to look like they believe in themselves.
But the world laid out in “People’s Republic of Desire” takes things further. The hosts appeal, directly and unashamed, for money. Lots of money. They shill, and their online communities chime in with a little or a lot.
Whoever gets the most money, the most votes, the most regulated adulation, can be recognized as the most popular female host or the most popular male host. They haven’t helped the world or demonstrated anything substantial. But they get the bragging rights, the money, the gifts, and the right to shame those who didn’t quite make the cut.
Wu interviews fans, out in the real world, where they toil long hours at work. One remarks that he gets two days off each month and spend as much of it as possible watching one of his hosts. It’s the only way they feel whole, they say, the only way they feel connected to something bigger than themselves, an antidote to loneliness flowing through their laptops.
I’m no communist. But how sad to find people who can’t believe in themselves, where paying to watch others believe in themselves carries with it a brutal rejection of personal power and personal worth.
As Wu shows in the end, the heroes prove only human. Shen Man gets accused of sleeping with the wealthy patrons who form a big part of the scene; she lashes out in anger and obscenities during one livestream, breaking character in desperation.
Big Li, unable to live with his wife and unable to live without her, eventually breaks down weeping. He misses his son. He misses any semblance of stability.
He wonders, seriously, intently, around his tears, if he might be better off going back to manual labor. The cruelest reveal: The folks paid to believe in themselves, come to doubt themselves, and even reject themselves.
I’m not calling for a new Revolution. I’m encouraging a re-evaluation — worldwide. If we think seriously and even feel seriously about the people we idolize and why, we might find ourselves healthier. We might find ourselves worthy. And we might find the means to change, grow and thrive. If we do for ourselves, we might come to believe in ourselves.