People's Republic Of Desire


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

People’s Republic of Desire
"The screen may be smaller, but the rules are much the same as they always were."

If you spoke to young people back in the Seventies and Eighties, the starry-eyed among them had one shared dream: to be discovered. This meant being spotted by a record company, Hollywood studio or fashion scout, plucked out of obscurity and raised up to the glittering heights of celebrity where, it was assumed (despite testimony from those who had survived the process), money, praise and glory would be available in abundance. Flash forward to the 21st Century – what do today’s schoolkids dream of? On the surface of it, they might seem more proactive. They’re ready to go out there are get themselves discovered by becoming social media stars. But has anything really changed?

In China, making it on social media means building up a fan following on YY, a streaming platform that functions as a talent spotter’s dream. There, Shen Man flutters her eyelashes and coos the love songs she hopes will make her a star – the songs that are already paying the rent for her and her bemused, unemployed father. Big Li tells jokes – often about the absurdity of stardom itself – and has also won himself an army of loyal fans. In both cases, part of what makes these figures appealing to the fans is the success they have so far enjoyed. It is wealth itself, as much as any actual talent, that is being celebrated, because its expression – everything from designer clothes to owning a house – is so far beyond the means of most ordinary people that the only way to get close to it is by helping to gift it to somebody else. A small donation can make the lowliest of people feel as if they’re part of something spectacular.

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Of course, it’s not the small donations that really make the difference for the budding celebrities, but fan interest helps to attract those who do matter – rich patrons. By donating, these often shadowy figures – at least one of those featured here is a former gangster – gain a kind of celebrity themselves. They can also engage in various forms of market manipulation, alongside their sponsorship, to make money off their games. And it’s a boredom breaker. One wealthy woman explains how she used to play the stock market. Now she has a new form of entertainment.

The screen may be smaller, but the rules are much the same as they always were. After years of graft, celebrity can be achieved almost overnight but taken away just as quickly. Young women know that they can make life-changing sums of money by sleeping with their patrons, but risk ostracisation by the fans and vicious hate campaigns if they are believed to have succumbed to this temptation. Meanwhile, some fans get into serious debt buying merchandise or cyber-gifts which they hope will win them a second or two of attention from one of their idols.

Hao Wu’s documentary, showing at Fantasia 2018, contrasts the hyper-real imagery of the YY screen, with all its glitter and cute icons and simulated cheers, with the stark vistas of the apartment buildings where these purveyors of glamour actually reside, factory-made baroque furniture squeezed into tiny blank-walled living rooms, narrow balconies crowded with washing under a smog-grey sky. There could be real community amongst these crowded dwellings, but we see little of it, and little real hope. Only in dreams can ordinary Chinese people achieve their starry ambitions. In beautiful dreams.

Reviewed on: 17 Jul 2018
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A documentary exploring live streaming, fame and fandom in China.

Director: Hao Wu

Writer: Hao Wu

Starring: Jiang Congyong, Man Shen, Li Xianliang

Year: 2018

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: China

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