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People's Republic of Desire

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
People's Republic of Desire Movie Poster Image
Shocking docu reveals dangers of China's livestream trend.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 95 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Serves as a cautionary tale about the trappings of fame and easy money. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

All of the personalities featured in the docu are very human in their dedicated efforts to go from rags to riches, but no one makes noble choices.

Violence

Mention of a suicide attempt. Mention of someone destroying personal property in a rage.

Sex

Viewers/male hosts make lewd comments aimed at female hosts. A woman fends off pressure from a financial supporter to have sex. A woman is shamed when her sex tape is leaked to the public. Mention of group sex being livestreamed. An aspirational woman puts out the belief that one must be physically attractive to succeed, including encouragements to get plastic surgery. A marriage becomes the source of consternation. 

Language

Language includes many uses of "f---ing," plus "boobs," "crap," "bulls--t," "damn," "p---y," "slut," and "whore." A famous man calls his wife a "stupid c--t" several times. When a host is losing a competition, he says on-camera, "Dear God, f--k you."

Consumerism

Projects belief among China's youth that you only matter if you have money. Materialistic attitudes and bragging about wealth are off the charts. Status is gained by spending large sums of money. Chinese streaming platform YY is central to story. Brands mentioned/featured as sign of success include Bentley, iPhone, Land Rover, Maserati, Ritz Carlton. Other brands seen on-camera include KFC and Honda. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

All of the featured men smoke frequently; one comments that men look most handsome when smoking. Wealthy young men meet at a bar and drink, verbalizing that drinking is a bonding experience. Two women drink wine at a business meeting.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that People's Republic of Desire is a subtitled documentary that looks at livestreaming entertainment in China. The film follows two of streaming platform YY's biggest stars over the course of a year, showing how both get sucked into the panic of trying to keep their success going, no matter the cost. By tying hosts' popularity/success to how much money they're able to get from their viewers, YY has gamified personality; benefactors gain status and fame by giving large "gifts" to the hosts. The documentary shows how this game is dicier for women than for men, since the former are on the receiving end of far more lewd comments and face pressure to have sex with their patrons. Comments from hosts promote drinking, smoking, and plastic surgery, and the subjects all place importance on materialism and greed. On one hand, the film can be seen as a cautionary tale that every older teen should see because it demonstrates that easy money and fame come at a high personal cost. But on the other, teens tend to think they can outsmart consequences, and the film might make them seek out this kind of work, pronto, because, you know: easy money and fame.

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What's the story?

PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE is a documentary that explores how the phenomenal success of China's livestreaming platform YY is affecting China's youth, following two of YY's stars: 21-year-old singer Shen Man and 24-year-old comedian Big Li. YY hosts create live shows with content that entertains China's youth -- think YouTubers who do live, multihour talkshows during which hosts react to viewer comments in real time. Hosts' income comes from their ability to get viewers to give them money -- sometimes hundreds of thousands at a time. The annual YY idol competition determines the top host as judged by votes, which are purchased. The real question, though, is the cost of YY's success on the hosts themselves and to China's youth at large, who are united with an online community but disconnected, lonely, and struggling in real life. 

Is it any good?

This is a jaw-dropper of a documentary that's a revealing must-watch for parents -- but for teens, maybe not. Initially, People's Republic of Desire plays like an episode of Vice, alerting audiences to an online phenomenon they're likely unaware of. But then it morphs into a real-life episode of Black Mirror, which is completely the intention of the film's creator, Hao Wu. The opening scene is an attention grabber: A bunch of attractive young women get livestreaming tips that will help them ensure that patrons give them financial gifts: "Keep your patrons happy, then you'll live like goddesses." It sounds like some sort of sugar daddy situation, and in a way, it is. Wu lays out exactly how livestreaming on YY is a slippery slope that many won't possibly realize the danger of until they're in too deep.

Livestreaming hasn't caught on in this way or at this level in the United States, and maybe it never will. The docu shows how YY exploits China's social class system, with some hosts plucked out of poverty to find huge fame. Their "zero to hero" stories give hope to viewers, many of whom are part of the single, lonely, working class who call themselves the "diaosi" (it cruelly translates to "losers" and means "poor and unattractive," but the term has been embraced the same way that Americans have reclaimed "nerds"). The hosts get paid by soliciting money from their viewers; the bigger the "gift," the more likely they'll engage with the donor, giving that person their own moment in the spotlight. Nouveau-riche "patrons" give gifts in the multi-thousands, leading viewers to cheer them on -- and to patrons becoming celebrities in their own right.  The documentary argues that YY is damaging this young population by giving hosts, fans, and patrons everything they think they want: hopes, dreams, attention, community, status, money, fame. But, says People's Republic of Desire, YY is a tech-age Rumpelstiltskin: It gives gold to its users, who are happy in the short run, but ultimately it takes a piece of them. Wu doesn't tell viewers what to think, but to adults, YY's toxic pyramid scheme will be clear as day. Teens, on the other hand, may think, "Where can I sign up?"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how People's Republic of Desire portrays youth online entertainment in China. How is YY different from or similar to YouTube? How do the competitions compare to U.S. shows like The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, and America's Got Talent? Do you feel YY is doing good or doing harm? Why?

  • How do you feel about the materialism portrayed in the documentary? Do you see the subjects' behavior as greed or something else? Do they approach money differently than people tend to in the United States? What's the same, and what's different? 

  • What is the movie saying about the nature of online/viral fame?

  • Compare the nature of the comments Shen Man receives from viewers and other hosts to that of the comments that Big Li receives. Do you think female celebrities in the U.S. get similar comments? Is there a solution?

  • How do Shen Man and Big Li change over the course of a year? Why do you think it happens? What's your takeaway from the film?

Movie details

For kids who love cautionary tales

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