INTERVIEW: Hao Wu, Director of 'The People’s Republic of Desire'

INTERVIEW: Hao Wu, Director of 'The People’s Republic of Desire'
Credit: Eric Jordan
What you need to know

SXSW Grand Jury Prize winning film 'The People’s Republic of Desire' will open this year’s Urban Nomad with its disturbing Black Mirror-esque look at the world of live streaming in China.

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Live streaming seems to be here to stay with dedicated platforms, such as Live.me, Meerkat, Twitch and Twitter Periscope and options on mainstream social media, such as Facebook Live and Instagram Stories, gaining in popularity. The technology is not without controversy - live streams of suicides, murders, and crimes have attracted particularly bad press. However for many live streamers, whether the focus is e-sports, lifestyle, travel, or a mish-mash of variety show style entertainment, the medium offers a way to make a living with minimal extra investment in equipment. The opening film of the 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival, The People’s Republic of Desire, takes a sharp look at one such platform in the PRC and, thanks to a fantastic job on the animation front, viewers are thrown headlong into both the virtual and real life of two streamers as they struggle to win the coveted title of most popular streamer on major China livestreaming platform YY.

American director Hao Wu has worked extensively both in the PRC and the US in the internet industry. His aim in making The People’s Republic of Desire was “to explore with this film how technology affects human relations, and how the seemingly easy riches enabled by technology change our sense of being, of happiness. Having a background in both the east and the west, I’m also lucky to be able to witness, first hand, the many ways that China has leaped ahead of the US in technology adoption. Live streaming, being China’s fastest-growing social medium and a growing phenomenon all over the world, is a prime example of the hyper evolution of the internet culture. It allows me to look into technology’s impact on its users, especially the young generation who have come of age with the internet.” While Wu has an established interest in exploring youth culture in the PRC - his last documentary The Road to Fame (2013) focused on drama students - this documentary takes the viewers far beyond the youthful presenters themselves, exploring the relationships between the extended families - and what the success of the youngsters mean to the family - the talent agents, platforms and patrons – both ludicrously rich and hopelessly impoverished.

One of the biggest challenges Wu faced was making the internet world come to life on screen. He resolved this by working with award-winning digital artist Eric Jordan, who has close to two decades of experience in user interface design, user experience design, 3D design/animation and many other related fields - on the graphic design, animation and visual effects. The result is an outstanding presentation of the virtual world on screen: messages: sometimes supportive, sometimes vile pop, up under a reduced screen as virtual gifts (money) are showered on the hosts, evoking the background that streamers are working in. Cityscapes are plastered with the live stream feeds on bus stops and billboards in the footage of everyday people glued to their phone screens on public transport – many of them presumably watching some live stream or other in an country where there were 400 platforms and 335 million viewers at the time of filming. Numbers have since risen to 422 million viewers in 2018, with revenues predicted to generate US$4.4 billion in revenues -by 2020 it is expected to expand to US$15.9 billion. The platform featured in the documentary, YY, is publicly traded on NASDAQ and is worth over US$8 billion.

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Credit: Hao Wu & Eric Jordan
Shen Ma one of the featured hosts in The People’s Republic of Desire.

Of course, the documentary quickly goes dark exposing the glaring contrast between bored Haotu (nouveau riche) who casually drop hundreds of thousands of dollars a month as patrons and the Diaosi (a self-depreciating term meaning loser) such as the poverty-line 18-year-old migrant worker trying to keep up, to share in the excitement, as he pines for a mention by his idol by sending monetary gifts he can ill afford. As the mask is slowly peeled back and the relationships and mechanisms are revealed one can’t help but become more horrified as the exploitation is relentlessly brought into clearer and clearer focus. Essentially everyone is on the take in one way or another - including the streamers’ own families, except perhaps the poorest players. The only winners appear to be the agencies and the platforms themselves who quietly profit off the whole thing.

Make no mistake though, The People’s Republic of Desire may be focused on a specific platform in the PRC but the lessons exposed are applicable well beyond those borders – the genius of this film is in exposing those lessons. They apply to the whole concept of social media and its effects – including addiction and subsequent irrational and self-destructive behavior – and way it exploits the human need for connection.

The News Lens caught up with Hao Wu ahead of the two screenings and subsequent Q&A sessions in Taipei this coming week to talk about the process of making the documentary, the current state of play of the industry globally and his hopes for what the audience might take away from the film.

The News Lens: How long did it take you to complete the project?

Hao Wu: The production phase of the film lasted two years, and editing took another year and half. The whole process took a lot longer than I had expected - which happens very often for documentary films - because: 1) I couldn't stop filming my main characters as their lives took many unexpected turns, and 2) it was very challenging to edit a well-paced film that both tell a compelling character-based story and explain how crazy and bizarre this Chinese online universe has evolved into.

TNL: How did you select the subjects for the documentary?

HW: Since I had worked for many years in China's internet industry, I asked my industry friends to help introduce me to YY, the live streaming platform featured in the film. YY then introduced me to more than a dozen live streamers. I met and filmed all of them before deciding to focus on Big Li and Shen Man. Unlike many other live streamers who may be loud or flirtatious online but actually reserved in real life, these two are open in front of my camera, and their personal lives had a lot of conflicts or potential conflicts which would make good drama.

livestreamer_3
Credit: Hao Wu & Eric Jordan
A livestreamer in 'The People's Republic of Desire.'

TNL: Part of the power in the film is the use of animation and effects showing the pervasiveness of the medium by presenting the live streams as thought they are being displayed on bus stops or billboards, and the virtual landscape of the livestream. What's the story behind these effects?

HW: Part of the reason that I used a lot of animation graphics in the film was out of necessity. The actual live streaming interface is very complex and chaotic. It's confusing even for native Chinese speakers. So early in production I made the decision to use animation graphics to recreate a simplified version of that virtual space, in order to better guide viewers' attention to different characters and different actions happening in that space.

Another creative decision I made is to have graphical elements from the live streaming world gradually invade and ultimately take over the real world. Part of the film thus feels like augmented reality, something not usually done in a documentary film. But I believe that this is the best way to illustrate technology’s firm grasp of my characters’ daily lives.

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Credit: Supplied

TNL: The documentary takes a deep look at a very specific area of live streaming on a particular platform and the ways in which the watchers and streamers are exploited by the system (arguably only the agencies and platform really 'win'). Do you feel that popular live streaming platforms in the US and other countries are likely headed in a similar direction? Or is the model you explore in People's Republic of Desire one that you think is particular to the situation in the PRC?

HW: YY has been a leader in China's live streaming space. It invented a business model based on "digital tipping" that fueled its popularity and profit. Other Chinese live streaming platforms soon followed it lead. So what's portrayed in the film is endemic in China's live streaming industry.

This model, built around direct monetary transaction between live streamers and fans, is not unique to China. On Twitch, the largest gaming live streaming platform in the US, fans can pay monthly subscription fee to or directly tip their idols. Twitch live streamers also attract big patrons ("whales") just as their Chinese peers do on YY. But the fan-idol relationships on Western platforms like Twitch are not as blatantly transactional, or as complex, as on the Chinese ones. Digital platforms design their features based on their user needs. So the different evolutions of live streaming in China and in the West is partly a reflection of different social realities.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech companies are busy exporting their live streaming platforms overseas, especially to other developing countries. Perhaps we'll soon realize that this seemingly unique "Chinese" tech phenomenon will find foreign soils to prosper on as well.

TNL: A major theme of the film is the human desire to connect with others. We currently live in a society which in many parts of the world is dominated by social media use. How much do you agree with the idea that social media has weakened rather than strengthened society in terms of human connection? Are there any platforms that give you particular pause for thought or that you think have the potential to be beneficial?

HW: I've always had the opinion that technology by itself is never good or bad. It all depends on how we use it, and how much we allow it to take over our lives. Any technology application is designed by humans to satisfy human needs. So for me, the key question is why we sometimes prefer "virtual" relationships over real ones, and how we as a society can encourage its members to focus on more challenging real-life relationships with deeper meanings.

TNL: What message do you hope that the audience will take away from the screening?

HW: There is no single message I’d like the audience to take away with. Rather, I want the audience to see themselves in the film – either the urge to connect and feel “liked” online, or the dream to make a quick buck – and walk away contemplating on their individual roles powering technology’s encroaching command of human desires.


The People’s Republic of Desire Screenings and Q&A

May 16 (Thursday) 7 p.m.

May 18 (Saturday) 2.15 p.m.

Details: Running time: 95 mins.

In Mandarin with English subtitles.

Venue: Wonderful Theater, Ximen

7F #116 Hanzhong St, Taipei

台北市萬華區漢中街116號7樓

MRT: Ximen, exit 6


2019 Urban Nomad Film Fest

Dates: May 11 to 27

Film Program: www.urbannomad.tw/2019-films/

Tickets: https://tinyurl.com/y3ga4dap

Register for FREE events: www.urbannomad.tw

The 18th year of the Urban Nomad Film Fest includes 55 films, including 25 feature films and 22 short films and 8 music videos. Most of these films will be seen in Taipei or Taiwan for the first time. There will be 37 local premieres as well as 12 Asia premieres, while five short films will have world premieres. At least seven international filmmakers will visit the festival and around 30 local filmmakers will participate. There will be at least two concerts, and every single day of the festival will have filmmakers at screenings for audience Q&As. There will be several panel discussions, some free film screenings, and a few parties as well.

Concerts

May 17 (Fri), 10 p.m. @ Triangle, Fermin Muguruza Ska Night, with Balkazar

FREE with ticket to any Urban Nomad music film, or for non-ticket holders NT$300 at the door

Panels

Taipei Cinema Park Exhibition Hall, 19 Kangding Rd, Taipei

臺北市電影主題公園: 台北市萬華區康定路19號

FREE with online registration

May 19 (Sun)

2:30 p.m. "50 Years After Woodstock" with Fermin Muguruza and John Head

4 p.m. "Art and Community" with Patrick Wang

May 26 (Sun)

2 p.m. "Film Funding"

4 p.m. "Music Video Forum"

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Taipei's Urban Nomad Opening Freakout

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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