The People’s Republic of Desire, reviewed

Society & Culture

A dark and provocative glimpse at China’s celebrity streaming culture


Originally founded as a gaming chat site in 2005, has become one of the biggest streaming sites in China, with more than 300 million users. Viewers watch the site’s 1 million streamers dance, sing, crack jokes, do activities outside, and sometimes just sit in front of a webcam, leaving comments and donating virtual items that can be turned into real money. The site’s become a nationwide phenomenon, and like YouTube or Twitch stars in the United States, some of YY’s hosts have become so rich and famous that it’s almost tempting to turn on a webcam and start streaming yourself. For China’s poor and ordinary, streaming represents a shot at fame and fortune they could never achieve working their usual jobs.

The country’s newfound obsession with streaming, little-known outside of China, is the subject of The People’s Republic of Desire 虚你人生, the latest documentary by filmmaker Hao Wu 吴皓. (Previously interviewed on SupChina by Sky Canaves here in 2016.) Filmed between 2014 and 2016, the movie explores this strange, virtual world, and how it overlaps with the real one. Although Wu interviews fans and patrons, the main focus is on the lives of two celebrity YY streamers, Shen Man 沈曼 and Big Li. Both skyrocketed to popularity from unlikely places, only by the end to feel disappointed and empty with their success.

Shen Man, 21, is the first of the pair we’re introduced to. Shen Man’s father wanted her to become a nurse, but her singing made her an internet sensation, and now she earns $40,000 a month from her streaming sessions. She’s really nothing extraordinary, yet it’s this kind of plainness (along with her flirtiness) that’s enraptured her fans. Wearing a red-and-white graphic shirt of a cartoon Shen Man, one female fan remarks that her idol “can achieve everything I can’t.” Another, a young man with the same shirt, says he wants to find a girlfriend just like her.

Big Li, a 24-year-old comedian who tends to scream a lot, is the second of the pair. He was a migrant worker when he first came to Beijing as a teenager, but now he’s living the dream, with not only a car and house, but a wife and son. For his fans, Big Li’s appeal comes from his past as a diaosi 屌丝, a slang term usually translated as “loser.” Diaosi was originally coined as an insult, but some young Chinese have taken the word as a badge of honor. Big Li frequently emphasizes his connection to the diaosi, calling them his brothers. One such fan, an 18-year-old man who does odd jobs, is featured throughout the documentary. His life is bleak, without much of a future, but watching Big Li provides some desperately needed happiness for the guy.

Both Big Li and Shen Man have their hearts set on winning a YY host competition. Whoever wins the most votes, with separate categories for female and male streamers, becomes the top sponsored host on the site. The objective sounds easy enough, but the actual competition isn’t a traditional popularity contest. Users openly buy votes, leading hosts to mobilize their fans and patrons in big, expensive campaigns. It helps for hosts to also have agents, big-spending sponsors who take a part of their earnings. Shen Man has no problem using one, but for Big Li, picking up an agent would mean losing some of his freedom.

The competition is fierce, and while Shen Man attends a fancy awards ceremony as the top female host, Big Li loses to a rival named Picasso. Feeling like he’s let his fans down, Big Li spirals into depression, sleeping in late and ignoring his family. Despite her victory, Shen Man isn’t faring so well either. Her family is entirely dependent on her for income. She buys her father and stepmother their own apartment, gets her grandfather a place, and plans to pay for her little sister’s way into college. Her relationship with her high-paying male patrons becomes a subject of gossip, with fans abandoning her and mocking her in her comment section as a whore.

YY — and streaming sites in general — sound like an awesome idea in theory. Ordinary people, some with little or no talent whatsoever, can become celebrities and earn money from home, all while they entertain fans and establish a sense of connection. In reality, as The People’s Republic of Desire chillingly depicts, there’s a dark side to this world. The diaosi fans in the movie are lonely and disconnected, substituting any real relationships they could have with a virtual stranger. They make only a few hundred dollars a month, yet when the YY competition arrives, are willing to donate their salaries out of a sense of loyalty. Even then, it’s only the tuhao 土豪, or nouveau riche, fans who can spend enough to make an impression on hosts.

It isn’t all sunshine for the hosts, either. YY takes a big cut of their earnings, and for the bigger hosts, their agents also get to share in the pie. Along with this, they face constant competition, and have to stay relevant to prevent fans from wandering off. Stars like Big Li and Shen Man came from nothing, but they could just as easily slip right back into anonymity. The threat of irrelevancy, and the stress of having to fulfill the expectations of fans and family, break Big Li and Shen Man down. When the next competition in 2016 rolls around, Big Li picks up a mysterious agent who refuses to reveal his identity. He rallies his fans to spend a fortune again, and even takes out $850,000 of his own money to compete. The results, for both Big Li and Shen Man, turn out less than ideal.

Despite their egotism and flaws, The People’s Republic of Desire does a great job of humanizing Big Li and Shen Man, giving outsiders an understanding of why these hosts became so popular in the first place. Watching the lengths these fans and hosts will go left me disturbed, yet also fascinated. In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Wu rolls by a sequence of news footage reporting streaming controversies. One man streams himself committing a burglary, while another woman streams her suicide attempt, continuing to film herself as she’s treated at the hospital. How should China — or any country grappling with the isolation the internet age has brought — deal with this desperation for attention and connection? Frustratingly, although this isn’t any knock against its brilliance, the movie doesn’t offer any answers. Instead, it ends on an even more depressing note, giving us one last heartbreaking stream with Big Li.

The People’s Republic of Desire can be streamed on Amazon Prime or Google Play.