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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.19.18] China documentary

If you think social media, YouTube culture and live streaming are strange, prepare yourself because Western culture has only scraped the surface when it comes to living on the internet. Hao Wu's People's Republic of Desire is a strange window into a world that YouTube corporate could only dream of.

Launched in 2005, has become the largest player in the business of live streaming in China and I really do mean business. With over 300 million users, YY generates money by sharing income with streamers who split a portion of their monthly earnings with the service and in the case of top acts, we're talking thousands of American dollars. Certainly more money than the average Chinese worker could make in a lifetime never mind one month.

Wu's documentary focuses on a pair of prominent acts, a singer and a comedian, as they experience the ups and downs of popularity, the hardships of "living" online and the pressures of continuing to be successful when you're the sole breadwinner of your entire family. Burnout is a thing but it's not an option - unless nose-diving your career and losing your sole source of income is your plan.

Admittedly, the themes of People's Republic of Desire aren't new and neither is the approach but Wu's film tackles those themes through some colourful characters and unique situations. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect to this entire thing is the people who keep the wheels turning: the consumers.

Fans send their favourite streamers online gifts, which translate into real-life dollars, and hope that their idol will respond to their question, wave at them or acknowledge them in any way. The rich see streaming as yet another opportunity to further exert their power by spending ridiculous amounts of money on the performers which, in turn, makes the patrons themselves popular. When the patrons spend, the fans titter and secretly pine that they could do the same and when the patrons don't spend, speculation abounds.

Into this online drama, Wu folds the reality of life for these stars: the pressures of being successful take a toll that includes not only their mental but also physical health. The women get surgeries to be more attractive and feel extra pressure to interact, online and off, with wealthy patrons. It's a cycle of abuse which can only end in disaster.

People's Republic of Desire is fascinating and ultimately, a really sad look at the perils of social media. It's also a cautionary tale of where, if left unchecked, culture is headed. China has already surpassed Western Culture in some ways and the advancement of social media is certainly one of them. Here's hoping the rest of the world takes note and sees this as the cautionary note it is.

People's Republic of Desire will premiere on PBS on February 25, 2019.

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