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People's Republic of Desire: A powerful peek inside China's livestreaming frenzy

Review: The provocative and heartfelt documentary shows how Chinese youth, having tasted wealth, are lost in the digital world.

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The film's main character, Shen Man, livestreams herself at home.  

Hao Wu

In China, young people are making a ton of cash broadcasting themselves online. But at what cost?

The provocative and heartfelt documentary People's Republic of Desire explores Chinese millennials' current obsession with livestreaming on a digital platform called YY. Livestreaming is so popular with Chinese youth that companies like YY and Momo are valued at billions of dollars, and a recent IResearch report suggests the industry will be worth 126.8 billion yuan (US$19 billion) in the next three years.

Directed and edited by Hao Wu, People's Republic of Desire won the Grand Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival this year. It plays for a week at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan starting Nov. 30.

It's a well-known myth in China that if you're pretty and have a bit of talent, you can get rich broadcasting yourself online. And some streamers do make millions of Chinese yuan (tens of thousands of dollars ) every month. They receive gifts from members of the live audience, who are known as patrons. Digital flowers, cars, boats and other presents are bought with real money and can be given to the streamers as audience members watch them perform. The more fans you have and the richer your fans are, the more money you can make.

It seems like an easy gig -- sit at home and make a comfortable living. However, this film turns the spotlight on the streamers' raw desire for wealth, heartbreaking offline stories and desperate attempts at gaining popularity.

Having worked in China's tech industry, Wu was curious about how fast China is changing, and how those shifts impact the younger generation.

"It's fascinating that [the] virtual internet brought the poor and wealthy together," Wu said at the film's New York premiere on Nov. 10. "The reality of the platform is that so many people want to get famous on YY, but they give up soon because it's so hard."

To make the documentary, Wu shadowed 12 to 15 streamers in China, but mainly profiled two stars of YY: a singer who does karaoke in her bedroom and a comedian who tells rags-to-riches jokes. Both seek fame, fortune and human connection online, but encounter failures and perils in real life just like everyone else.

One of the prominently featured livestreamers, singer Shen Man, is so famous from livestreaming she's even appeared on magazine covers. People want to be like her -- and men want to be with her. In real life, she's the sole source of income for her family, and is constantly harassed by her rich patrons for sex.

Wu said there were some things he couldn't show in the film, such as Shen dining with rich patrons so they'd keep giving her money online. The film does clearly show, however, a digital world that has trapped some streamers, and the disturbing attitudes of a young generation in China. As people dream of becoming famous and rich overnight, they have a hard time facing reality. Having tasted wealth, they struggle to find other jobs that pay well and don't want to give up their lifestyle.

The film also follows fans who are poor and turn to streamers to find a sense of belonging and connection, spending money they can't afford to follow their online favorites. 

Asked how he feels about livestreaming after making this film, Wu expressed ambivalence.

"It's like YouTube," Wu told me. "It has a reason for its existence and people are entertained. But I wouldn't want my kids to get sucked into this."

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