In her apartment in Chengdu, China, 21-year-old Shen Man sits in front of her computer screen, a webcam pointed at her dolled-up face as she croons a love ballad into a microphone. Tens of thousands of people watch her livestream on their smartphones or computers, sending virtual gifts of flowers or lollipops—each costing between 15 cents a few dollars—to show their support. Big spenders gain VIP titles by sending bigger gifts reaching into the thousands of dollars, and in response Shen cooingly thanks them by username. Each month, Shen earns $40,000 as a top YY.com livestream host.
The new documentary People’s Republic of Desire follows Shen and another top YY host, rotund and deep-voiced comedian Big Li, to explore the fascinating, disturbing, and ultimately tragic world of high-stakes livestreaming in China. Beyond interviews with hosts, die-hard fans, and crazy-rich patrons, the documentary uses clever animation to bring viewers into this brave new digital world.
Many of the livestream viewers are low-class migrant workers looking for an escape from the drudgery of menial jobs and the loneliness of living far from home. Some spend their meager paychecks on virtual gifts for their “idols,” hoping for a shout-out that often never comes. Big Li especially attracts self-proclaimed “diaosi,” or losers, as he was also once a lowly migrant worker. He now makes $60,000 a month by livestreaming.
Big-spending patrons come from China’s nouveau riche. Patrons give money to their favored hosts in order to attract the attention of the hosts as well as the army of fans who want to chat with someone rich. One patron, the corpulent Songge, who admits he works in “profiteering,” has spent $2 million on YY hosts. He notes that being a patron gives him a sense of control as the indebted hosts (many of whom are young, attractive women) feel obliged to do whatever the patron says.
The documentary centers on an annual competition that pits top hosts against each other to see who can gain the most votes, which each vote costing viewers about 15 cents. Agencies sponsor certain promising hosts, purchasing large amounts of votes to build up momentum and taking a large cut of the total profits. The winning hosts gain fame and fortune as well as the coveted top spot on the YY website. One fan interviewed said she would spend about $800 on the competition, even though she makes about $600 a month.
Even as the fans idolize their hosts, Shen Man and Big Li battle their own demons. Shen Man’s father and stepmother move in and mooch off of Shen’s earnings. She gets plastic surgery to better compete with younger, up-and-coming hosts. Patrons call asking for favors—at times sexual—in exchange for the money they’ve spent on her, and Shen’s scandals with married men damage her reputation. She admits that she’s tired and lonely, even as she sits in her new, princess-style apartment.
Big Li, whose rags-to-riches story inspires others, is himself facing a downward spiral. Fixated on winning the annual competition, he neglects his wife and young son and idly sleeps all day, lying on the couch staring at his phone. His marriage falls apart, he gets scammed by an anonymous sponsor, and he puts $850,000 of his own money into the competition, only to fail again. At one point he reminisces about how much easier his life was as a migrant worker, before YY fame and money entered the picture.
In the end, the real winner is the YY app: One news broadcaster said YY receives about 60 percent of the total profit, with the rest split between hosts and their agencies.