Review: The sassy documentary ‘People’s Republic of Desire’ captures China’s mania for live streaming

Film Critic

Influential Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping may or may not have said, “to get rich is glorious,” but regardless, he couldn’t have imagined some of the ways his country’s citizens would amass enormous wealth, or the ways that wealth would be used.

As examined and explained in the smart, sassy and provocative documentary “People’s Republic of Desire,” live streaming exists in China to an extent unheard of in this country. Statistics claim that 433 million Chinese watch live streaming, on track to generate $4.4 billion in revenue in 2018.

More than that, live streaming hosts can earn enormous sums, up to a reported $200,000 a month and more, just for having the kind of personality and drive that appeals to a mass audience.


Filmmaker Hao Wu, a former technology executive who produced, directed, filmed and edited “People’s Republic” (which won the documentary award this year at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas) heard about this phenomenon before it really took off and turns out to be the ideal guide to this hard-to-believe universe.

Making expert use of dazzling 3-D animation created by Eric Jordan, Wu manages to create a visual experience that echoes the excitement felt by those whose lives revolve around watching live streaming.

The filmmaker is also quite good at analyzing and explaining this world, slowly peeling away onion-like layers, to show us how things work from the inside.

Finally, Wu emphasizes the personal element, introducing us to and spending considerable observational and interview time with the flesh and blood humans who are caught up in the phenomenon as either creators or consumers of this ultra-popular material.

“People’s Republic” begins with a class for wanna-be live streaming hosts, where the instructor lays out how the system works. “You have to hook fans and engage them, reel them in,” she explains.

The next step is turning fans into patrons, people willing to shower cash on hosts. “If you keep your fans happy,” the instructor promises her largely female class, “you’ll live like goddesses.”


Many streaming hosts appear on YY, one of China’s leading streaming platforms, and “People’s Republic” spends significant amounts of time with two of the most popular and successful.

Perhaps the most intriguing is Shen Man, a 21-year-old former nurse turned singer whose provocative banter delights and enlarges her audience.

Shen Man’s income is $40,000 a month when we meet her, but she is dreaming of more and baffling her ne’er-do-well father, who doesn’t understand the phenomenon (“this society is progressing too fast,” he says) but doesn’t hesitate to freeload off his daughter.

Also seen a lot is Big Li, a gravely voiced comedian and former hotel security guard whose rough and tumble demeanor delights his fans and worries his wife, Dabao, a capable talent manager who had a big hand in forming Big Li’s streaming personality.

Big Li is a special favorite of the diaosi, self-described losers who tend to be disadvantaged young men in dead end jobs with no prospects.

The film spends time with one such fan, the nerdy 18-year-old Yong, who seems to have no personal life at all that is not connected to his passion for Big Li.


Another key piece of this on-line universe is the big spenders who shower money on hosts, earning both the applause of the diaosi and relief from the boredom that otherwise seems to dominate their lives.

All these factors come to a head in the annual competition YY runs to see who is the most popular host, with fans having to buy votes, a process that enriches both the hosts and the platform, which, of course, takes a cut.

Though all these technological trappings are newer than new, the human needs for happiness, applause and emotional connection are classic.

The ability of “People’s Republic of Desire” to show these familiar desires playing out in futuristic surroundings is invariably surprising and never less than compelling.

“People’s Republic of Desire”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica