This month’s “book review” is about a film….
In mid-December I took time off from the seasonal holiday frenzy to watch Chinese director Hao Wu’s The People’s Republic of Desire on the Austin Film Society big screen. Winner of SXSW’s 2018 Grand Jury Prize in Documentary, the film is a snapshot of the live streaming phenomenon in China.
Focusing on two live streamers using the YY platform (one of hundreds in China), the film reveals aspects of Chinese life and culture that are not well-known abroad. US reviews of the documentary, lacking the benefit of a familiar reference point or context, have tended to gawk and revel in the overall weirdness of the lifestyle being portrayed.
If you’ve read any of those reviews and/or have seen the film, please also take the time to read Lauren Hallanan’s thoughtful Forbes’ commentary which incorporates comparison to live streaming in the US. That article provides a more nuanced view from an insider’s standpoint, though does not acknowledge that for Americans who know very very little about modern China to begin with, the film can make China seem genuinely strange and kind of awful. I base this statement on comments of my teenage son, who went with me. He said it made him feel like China was really not a very nice place; that people there must be very unhealthy because everyone in the film was pale with bad skin and most of the men were pudgy and bloated; and people only cared about money.
My takeaways were a little different:
- The slice of life portrayed was unreal or extreme for most Chinese people as well – that’s what makes documentaries interesting or noteworthy. I am thinking of Hands on a Hardbody as a worthy example: it’s a entertaining documentary showing a slice of US existence that is not the norm for most Americans, either. The “stars” are ordinary people engaging in behavior or situations that are extraordinary as compared with “real life”, though maybe not heroic or inspiring
- The biggest winners in Chinese live streaming are the platform owners, not the individual “players” or audience. I think you can say this for most, if not all, of the entertainment and media industry worldwide. Individuals and the “fan economy” of China are just one example. Appearances and judgement aside, having all personal interactions via internet does not by definition equal loser, but it does mean face-to-face communication skills are declining. Maybe it doesn’t matter?
- Fame for the top internet stars as “key opinion leaders” (KOLs) in China is fleeting, so depending on a favored KOL for your China marketing or reputation-building is not as reliable as making a great product/service and building on your own/company’s reputation and ability to promote. That’s a better use of resources.
- The documentary does not glorify on-line fame, and portrays it as superficial, lacking substance, and driving questionable decision-making for both stars and followers. However – taking a tangential step – having some part of the population that is complacent and lulled into a virtual sense of belonging may be why the national authorities, while heavily monitoring content, approve of the local live streaming tidal wave. “A heavily-policed version on non-conformism” is be a good was to let off steam.
- Having a sense of cultural context is necessary for making a more accurate assessment of what is going on in China today (and anywhere). Having the curiosity to think and question beyond your own norms is a really good thing. And having the ability abstain from hurling out reactionary judgement and criticisms, without thinking and exploring first, is absolutely fantastic.
The People’s Republic of Desire is currently available pay-per-view through Amazon Prime, Youtube and Vimeo. Looks like it may play for free on PBS’s Independent Lens program on February 25. Check your local listings and let me know what you think of the film!