SXSW Interview: Hao Wu on his award-winning documentary People’s Republic of Desire

After winning the Documentary Feature category at the South by Southwest Film Awards earlier this week, People’s Republic of Desire from filmmaker Hao Wu is poised to become one of the most important watches of 2018. For his third documentary on different layers of Chinese culture, Wu takes a very close and unnerving look at the almost pathological culture of live-streaming and the multitude of effects it can have on both the streamer and the audience. We’re talking about life engineered through a digital lens with the end-goal of money and status, and with social media such a hot topic at this year’s SXSW film (Generation Wealth and Social Animals, both part of the program, also tackled similar subjects), it was only right that we catch up with Wu to chat about his fascinating new documentary.

Speaking on the important of analysing Chinese culture, loneliness in a world of hyper-connectivity, and letting the audience experience rather than learn, Wu gives us insight into the making of the film and it’s far-reaching implications. You can check out the full transcript of our talk with the director below.

This is your third on Chinese culture. I wanted to start a bit broad and figure out what attracts you to exploring Chinese culture in this way, and what do you think highlighting certain elements can teach the rest of the world?

Oh. That’s a big question. I grew up in China, obviously. You know, I always wanted to tell stories. When I was looking for stories to tell, obviously, as a story teller, we start from what’s close to us, what we feel most strongly about. Having lived in the U.S. for many years – over 20 years now – one thing I’ve noticed is that in the U.S. and the West in general, the perception of China is still like “us versus them”. There is a dichotomy. There is antagonism because we tend to focus so much on the political differences, and some conflict in our value systems. But, we forget that over there they are also people. A lot of their desires, aspirations are the same. So, that’s kind of like the driving force for me to tell stories to really let people outside of China see that … to understand before we talk about imposing our own values or helping China find a solution. But, first we have to understand who those people are, where the country’s going toward, the society’s moving to, and how really are we that different?

In one aspect, we feel superior, or there’s anything we can learn from the other side. So, these are the … I mean I don’t have answers, per se, but I think as a story teller, as an artist, what we need to do is pose these questions and encourage audiences to think about these questions.

And this question is also one of the most, I guess, modern questions that someone can ask is that the things of isolation and connection in a digital world. What is it about Chinese culture in particular that has given birth to this, I guess, pathological culture of live streaming for money?

I think … earlier I was talking to a friend, and he mentioned one thing. He’s like, “Your film is really about critical thinking about capitalism.” So, yeah. I mean the live streaming is like an extreme form of social media, but why is it happening in China? Because China right now is going through hyper-internet evolution, which is happening a lot faster, the mobile penetration every day is … personally, I think it permeates people’s lives a lot more over there. Even compared to here in the Western world. The second thing is the capitalism, right? Capitalism in China is growing at a super drive mode.

So, I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to watch the film yet.

I have.

Okay. So, I think in the end, live streaming in the film becomes almost like a game. Everybody’s willing to playing this game because we’re losing touch with reality – young people living online and all. That’s one thing. Second thing is that people are so hungry for money, and money becomes the ultimate status symbol. People want to show off their money.

It’s a global phenomenon we’re facing. It’s how lonely we are in the age of all this connectivity. Also, how much money or capitalism controls our lives, and that we look up to the wealthy. We look up to the celebrities, especially those online who are having quote, unquote glamorous lives. We’ll aspire to be them. So, I think live streaming is this kind of almost extreme example of how these two forces coming together, what we will get online.

And speaking about the two subjects of your film, how did you find them, seek them out, and why did you choose to tell the story through their perspective?

In 2014, when I started filming, live streaming wasn’t mainstream in China yet. It was a very niche technological phenomenon. But, I saw and understood that there are rich people and poor people together living in this ecosystem. Because in China, as everywhere else, the rich have their own circle, live in their own neighbourhood, their houses etc. The poor, there’s a physical divide between them, but online they’re all together. So, that kind of piqued my interest. So, because I have worked in the Chinese internet industry for many years, I asked some friends to help introduce me to YY. The company actually introduced me to all these live streamers. Who do you want to talk to? They made an introduction for me. So, I actually talked to a dozen or 12, 15 live streamers before I focused on these two. For documentary filmmakers, casting is the most important, finding the characters that are grabbing onscreen and also who can convey how they feel, and whose life can potentially go through changes.

Did you notice any shared similarities between the dozen or so internet celebrities you interviewed? And what is the commonality that links these people and attracts them to this world?

It’s money. I mean these people, just like in my film, I talk about the fans. There are a lot of poor fans. That they are still self-proclaimed “losers”. And these live streamers before they became rich and famous online, they are also like people who are nothing, young people with no hope in their future. So, as soon as they realised they can make a lot more money online versus having a real job, they quit, and they decide to become a full-time live streamer.

Is this intensified by Chinese culture and the particular focus on status and wealth?

I think for the live streamer, it’s actually just like … it’s like the two characters in my film, right? I mean yes. It’s always … fame and fortune come almost together. I mean you need to be notorious in some ways or quote, unquote famous online before you can make money first. But, obviously, some people like Big Li [one of the film’s subjects], he’s willing to lose money for the fame. But, I think most of the live streamers are more like Shen Man [the other subject], where they are like “oh, I have to support my family. I don’t have any other way to make money”. But, once they make that money, once they realise how unhappy they are, they cannot leave because money is the ultimate trap.

I found it interesting how between the fans, competition plays a big part as well. Like, who can give the biggest gift and such.

This is status. Showing off. I think there are two primary motivations for fans to spend, three actually. The number one, obviously, there are still fans who really like your singing [in the case of Shen Man], who want to support you. And then, the live streaming host, they always tell, “Oh, I came from a very poor family,” and their fans say, “I want to support you.” That’s the number one. Number two is that “I want you to notice me”. So, if I spend enough money, you will call out my name and say, “Thank you, Hao, for buying me 1,000 lollipops.” So, that’s the online recognition. The third one is that there are ulterior motives, too, right? They want to meet the girl in real life, maybe want to sleep with the girl.

And how was it for you sitting in the kind of training sessions at the start of the film, like there’s this, I guess, manipulation taking place, and control; how was that for you?

It was mind-opening, eye-opening to some degree, but at the same time, because China’s going through a phase where money and making money and a desire to making money is so … what is it? People are not shy about talking about it. So, this has become very open to conversation. I find that type of training kind of eye-opening, but I don’t find the teaching of like “how can you flirt and manipulate to get people to spend” strange anymore.

I guess it is normalised because social media has become a business

Yeah. Social media. Everybody like whatever you do and some of those things that can make money, so that’s people’s first reaction.

So you’ve got the finished product of this documentary up and out there now. What do you hope your audience takes away from this film and learns?

It’s kind of tough because the reviews are slowly coming in. I think some reviewers feel like “what are you trying to say in that film?” I’m like, as a director, as a filmmaker, I was like, “I made a film. I want you to take away whatever you want to take away from.” There’s people arguing back and forth among the audience, debating what the film’s about. Honestly, I just want the audience to see what happens when money and internet technology come together.

And how it can bring good, and how it can bring bad. Because think about it, I mean these young people, they came really from nothing. Internet made them multimillionaires. It’s like the Slumdog Millionaire story, right? So, they have a chance at making their lives better, supporting their family. So, that’s good. I also feel the lonely migrant workers, in real life they don’t have that many friends. Internet give them one way to connect, even though this connection is idol worship, it’s empty, but still it’s better than nothing, I would argue.

But at the same time, this fame just makes people feel trapped, ultimately. So, that’s all I want people to take away, I want them to watch this story almost like a Black Mirror episode. It’s like can it be true? But, it is true. It is happening, and then make them think about their own lives. I mean that’s how I think whenever I watch a Black Mirror episode.

Like an ink blot test

Yeah. That’s all I want the audience to take away from this project.

And your approach to documentaries … it sounds like you much prefer to present a palette for people to paint on, rather than give them your opinion and sway them in a certain way

That’s right. Yeah. I personally I like to experience first. I like to be confused. I like the process of discovery. I don’t want to be told like what I should take away from something. When I watch other films, and when I like certain films, it’s because that film let me experience something new, rather than trying to teach me something. I feel like we can learn so many other ways, right? But, film is so unique; film can just let audiences experience.

People’s Republic of Desire premiered earlier this week at SXSW Film in Austin, Texas and has since been named winner of the festival’s Documentary Feature category. For more information about the film click HERE.