“People’s Republic of Desire tells a real-life Black-Mirror-like story, in which technology gives young people otherwise of no future prospect a chance at fame and fortune, but also destroys their personal happiness in the process. The story is set in China, where internet adoption among the youths has arguably leaped ahead of the US, and it centers on two live streamers – a 21-year-old karaoke singer and a 24-year-old online comedian—as they strive to establish and maintain their popularity, and income which supports their families’ livelihood, in China’s red hot live streaming industry.” — Director Hao Wu
Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
It’s my first time at SxSW. I’m planning to attend the March 10th and 11th screenings of my film.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
Before embarking on filmmaking full-time, I worked in management roles at internet companies from Excite@home, TripAdvisor to Alibaba, in both Silicon Valley and in China. I loved technology but the desire to tell stories had always been there, ever since I was a child; and it grew ever stronger as I matured. I did some writing and filmmaking on the side, and at the end of 2011, I decided to quit my career in technology to focus on storytelling.
How did this project come together for you?
I was researching new projects after having finished my last film, when a friend in China’s tech industry told me about this live streaming company called YY. It was already listed on NASDAQ and worth billions, but still relatively unknown among the general population in China. I did some digging and found that YY was very popular among China’s young and lonely diaosi (“loser”) generation. It also attracted many nouveau-riche types. I was shocked by how blatantly the rich showed off their wealth by spending tens of thousands a night on digital gifts, and how unabashedly the poor “losers” worshipped the rich. Even though live streaming was a pure online phenomenon, I sensed that real human desires were powering its growing popularity. I was intrigued and decided to pursue this topic.
Filming started in the summer of 2014 and wrapped two years later in 2016, when live streaming exploded in China as the hottest technology trend. Editing began in early 2016 and took almost two years, much longer than what I had planned for, in order to get the story right.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee are we talking about here?
To marvel at real life’s stranger-than-fiction complexity. Complexity intrigues me, so I am always itching to peel the layers off, to be surprised, to know more, which is what I have attempted in making this film.
And at least 5 cups of coffee every day and chewing a lot of nicotine gum. I used to be a heavy smoker but has managed to stay off the most dangerous toxins.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
Telling this online story visually and successfully has been a big challenge. The film industry has struggled with making the internet world come to life on screen, since so much of people’s lives are taking place on an invisible network, and it’s hard to translate that visually. For this film, it was also difficult to explain live streaming intricate ecosystem to audiences not already familiar with that world, while at the same time telling a compelling human story.
The most rewarding moment came on the first day of the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab (we were invited to workshop our film there). After the rough cut screening finished, there was so much heated discussion in the room about what the film was about, how the viewers could relate to the main characters, and whether they loved or hated the story. It was then when we knew we did something right – we got people to debate instead of giving them a single message to take home with!
I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
I decided early in production to recreate the virtual live streaming world with 3D animation. The actual live streaming interface is busy and confusing, and it’s in Chinese! Thus the crazy feel does not translate well across languages. I want the audiences to be able to immerse and experience, perhaps being bewildered at the beginning just like I was, but gradually understanding this bizarre universe more and more.
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.
For the verite shoot, I did most of the camera work myself, with some second unit help when covering people in different geographical locations participating in the same online event. Since the live streamers often work in their bedrooms or living rooms, we avoided big crews and usually had one, and at most two, people working on any particular location. We shot mostly on Canon C100 and C300.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
Since this is our world premiere, I’m anxious to see how real audiences respond to the film in a theater, for the first time, and whether this dystopian technology story resonates across cultures.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
We have been invited to bring the film to a few festivals, and hopefully more later in the year. We are still looking for theatrical and online distribution.
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I’d love to screen the film at TwitchCon. Twitch is the closest US equivalent to the Chinese live streaming platform featured in this film. I’d love to see how US live streamers respond to the stories of their peers across the ocean.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE WORD you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?