LIVE streaming is a worldwide phenomenon, but what direction is it taking us in? Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge speaks to film director Hao Wu ahead of Friday’s UK release of his documentary on live streaming in China – People’s Republic of Desire.
Q: Your last film The Road To Fame focused on youngsters in the Chinese entertainment industry. What led you to make a film about China’s live streaming industry?
A: I HAVE always been interested in youth culture and how our societal changes affect youngsters’ outlook in life. Worldwide, technology is arguably having the biggest impact on young people right now.
Live streaming – China’s fastest-growing social medium and a growing worldwide phenomenon – is a prime example of the hyper evolution of the internet culture, which intrigued and drew me to this subject.
Q: In the US and UK the most popular live streaming services are Twitch and YouTube. People’s Republic of Desire – showing at the Bertha DocHouse from 27 July – focuses on the Chinese platform YY. Can you tell us about YY and how it differs from our familiar streaming platforms in the west?
A: THE most popular live-streaming content in the west is still gaming. In China, it has expanded far beyond gaming to include entertainment, eating, home shopping, and even just simple chit chatting. YY focuses on live entertainment where live streamers sing karaoke, dance or do talk shows.
Q: Video game streamers such as Ninja draw some of the largest audiences in the US. Who are the equivalents in YY? What do they do on stream and what makes them popular?
A: THE most popular streamers on YY are surprisingly male talk show hosts, despite the fact that most YY streamers are pretty girls singing half-decent karaoke.
These top male streamers tell dirty jokes, chit chat with their fans, and sometimes scream rap into their mics. Their fans find them appealing because they are considered authentic, have become rich and famous online despite their poor upbringing similar to their fans, and they attract rich patrons who spend ridiculous amount of money on them, buying them virtual gifts – the mere spectacle of which excites their fans.
Q: Audiences for these streaming platforms in the US and UK tend to skew younger. Is that the case in China?
A: YES, it is. In China, most users of live streaming are in their late teens and early 20s.
Q: What do you feel is driving this culture in China and what are the forces driving people to this culture?
A: LIVE streaming has experienced explosive growth in China because the various platforms are very good at understanding their users’ needs. They have built a money-based ecosystem to satiate those desires unmet in real life. That is, live streamers, most of them without a good education or job prospect, wanting an easy way to make a lot of money.
The rich “tuhao” patrons eager to attract the attention of live streamers, to befriend or date online celebrities, to show off their wealth. And then the poor “diaosi” fans wishing to connect online after a dreary day at work, to worship their idols while consuming cheap entertainment, to marvel at the rich patrons whose nightly spending may exceed their monthly or annual income.
Q: What are the by-products of the live-streaming culture and what direction is it heading in?
A: LIVE streaming is propelling the “cheap” content favoured by the underclass youth in China. It is arguably one of the few ways left in China today that still allow a select few from that group to become truly wealthy as live streamers. So the society at large is feeling conflicted – it frowns upon the popularity of the phenomenon, but begrudgingly admires its financial success.
More and more young people, however, are diving headlong into live streaming as an easy way to make a lot more than a regular salary, without fully understanding the costs (emotional, relationship wise) it incurs.
Meanwhile, as live streaming becomes more mainstream, its content is also diversifying away from its underclass roots. Now live streaming in China is used in education, news/event broadcast and ecommerce.
Q: We are currently seeing the impact of Chinese state interference on football teams such as AC Milan and Aston Villa. What has the state’s approach, if any, been to the live-streaming industry?
A: THE state nipped any emerging discourse on social issues in live streaming a few years ago. Now its primary concerns are pornography and the “crass” content promoting money worship and anything deviant of “mainstream” values. The various ministries have issued more regulations on live streaming, such as real-name registration and penalties for platforms if their live streamers are found violating those regulations.
Q: The visuals of the film look incredible in the trailer and Indiewire has mentioned that you introduce graphics into the vérité footage as the film progresses. Can you tell us about the effect you wanted it to have?
A: PERSONALLY, I am a believer that non-fictional filmmaking can be artistically as experimenting and exciting as narrative films. I am a huge fan of sci-fi films and shows with Blade Runner and Black Mirror among my all-time favourites. So for this film about the internet, I used a lot of 3-D animation and special effects to give it a sci-fi “feel,” because the characters in my film are living in the technology, so to speak.
Q: How was your experience making this film? Was it emotionally taxing or shocking in any way?
A: IT has been an exciting process making this film as I got the chance to play with animation, special effects and a music score to achieve the look and sound I wanted. It is also emotionally taxing because for a long time, few understood what kind of documentary film I was making and the live-streaming ecosystem and my characters’ stories were both complex to unpack.
Needless to say, it has taken much longer than I had expected to finish this film.
Q: Have you been able to gauge a response to the film from Chinese audiences and critics/journalists?
A: SO far I have only met Chinese audiences at international festivals. They “get” the special appeal of live streaming in China immediately and they laughed at places that were lost in the subtitle translation. They were my most excited audience members after each screening.
We are still waiting for government permission to show this film in China.
Q: Congratulations on winning the SXSW 2018’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Why do you feel your film is connecting with audiences?
A: I THINK the story in this film, even though set in China, speaks to the zeitgeist of our generation — the relationship between humans and technology. People in the West are increasingly aware of and debating our prior over-confidence in the “good” of technology. This film shows in vivid real-life stories how technology can trap and alienate us.