Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

"Rather than an expose of the dark side of live streaming, or focusing on its superstars, Zhu gravitates towards marginalized voices: those in rural areas, the disabled, single mothers."

An assembly of clips from Chinese live streaming before tighter state regulations were brought in to police content, Present.Perfect is a captivating, frequently endearing insight into the lives of Chinese citizenry not often seen in mainstream media. Chicago-based director Shengze Zhu viewed more than 800 hours of footage from ‘anchors’ she liked, before whittling the clips down to a mere two hours, rendered here in black and white, a choice that could seem unnecessarily austere, but doesn’t diminish the vitality in these clips.

Rather than an expose of the dark side of live streaming, or focusing on its superstars, Zhu gravitates towards marginalized voices: those in rural areas, the disabled, single mothers. The snippets she selects don’t encourage pity, nor voyeurism, though the motivation of the latter isn’t lost on these anchors. “I can provide simple agriculture entertainment," says one farmer wryly in between explaining how he is working on an eco- friendly farm, incriminating the viewer. But Present.Perfect rarely indulges such obvious exploitation - in this edited, curated form, our interest is not just in the anchors, but their interactions with followers, as they attempt to entice them into donating gifts, or lash out at them for not paying attention (“How many will stand by me?” asks one anchor in an impassioned monologue, “not even one”).

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Loosely split into four parts, Zhu’s film features some of the same imagery as other Chinese documentaries of the past two decades, namely shots of widespread demolition and newly erected skyscrapers and tower blocks. But they are in the background - this isn’t an issue-led film, out to present, explain or mourn socio-cultural changes – it’s a film of fascinating characters who tell their stories through intimate asides and direct-to- camera addresses as they go about their daily lives.

No one here fits the popular perception of live-streamers as brazen, narcissistic egotists – instead they use the medium as a way to make social connections, no matter how ephemeral or elusive these relationships might appear. Maybe virtual is as good as it can get for people like one boy featured here whose physical development was halted early on – he says that streaming under positivised moniker Opposite Attitude helped him leave the house. For one seamstress in an undergarment factory who streams from her workstation while making underwear, her followers (often inquisitive about her marital status) seem to fill in for co- worker banter.

Where similar docs like Gregoire Beil’s National Narrative, a film on French live streamers focused heavily on trolling and online abuse, Zhu gives more airtime to clips that expose more of her chosen anchor’s personalities, lives and regularly reflective, self-reflexive thoughts: "We want to be happy. We want to feel joyful. We don’t need to be professional or sing well or dance well. As long as we all feel happy," says one street-dancer. More on the nose is a long closing shot of ants tending to a cockroach in a tank that inspires its onlooker to opine: "If you treat them sincerely, you’ll find their soul…. you can always learn from them." It’s a view that rings equally true for the anchors here. An affectionate collage capsule of a moment when Chinese live streaming was exploding, Present.Perfect is hard not to warm to.

Reviewed on: 24 Jan 2020
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A documentary portrait of Chinese society by focusing on the most marginalised - a chain-smoking burn victim, an uncoordinated street dancer, a man with growth-hormone deficiency, a cattle farm worker, and many others.

Director: Shengze Zhu

Year: 2019

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: Hong Kong, US


NDNF 2019

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