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INDEPENDENT LENS: People's Republic of Desire

Young Chinese gathering online to watch talk shows.
Courtesy of Junbing Sun
Young Chinese gathering online to watch talk shows.

Premieres Monday, Jan. 3, 2022 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV / On Demand

Disturbing and provocative, “People’s Republic of Desire” explores the strange world of China’s live-streaming “showrooms,” where the most popular stars can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a month from adoring fans who “tip” them with “digital gifts” paid for with actual cash.

While live-streaming has been available in the U.S. for years, it has found a rapid – and rabid – following in China where over 422 million viewers watch ordinary people-turned-celebrities as they sing, eat, dance or talk. One of the most popular live-streaming platforms is YY, which attracts an enormous young audience, who spend hours with their online idols and call themselves the diaosi (“loser”) generation. Like their Hollywood counterparts, the idols’ agents negotiate promotional opportunities, manipulate their client’s public personas, and take a 20% cut of their earnings.

Trailer | People's Republic of Desire

But have these virtual relationships replaced actual one-on-one connections? "People’s Republic of Desire" focuses on two of the most popular online stars: Shen Man, a nurse-turned-singer whose success is sullied by online trolls and family members who expect her to support them, and Big Li, an online comedian willing to risk almost anything to keep his fame alive. Adored and supported by free-spending nouveau riche and poor migrant workers, these live-streaming stars are brought together in a series of high-stakes online idol competitions, where they discover that happiness in their virtual world may be as elusive as in the real one.

Vote$ for Livestreamers | People's Republic of Desire

"While the characters and the platforms are Chinese, Hao Wu's provocative film shows us that, on the internet, infinite possibilities and crushing disappointments are universal," said Lois Vossen, executive producer of INDEPENDENT LENS. "His film is a fascinating look into a curious online popularity contest determined by real fan dollars, along with the story of a new generation grasping for fortune, fame, and belonging in today’s hyper-connected yet alienating social media world. People's desire to log on begs the question, ‘what is authentic human connection online?’"

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This episode will be available simultaneously with the broadcast on the INDEPENDENT LENS website, and the PBS Video App.

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Director/Producer/Cinematographer/Editor: Hao Wu. Executive Producers: Jean Tsien, Sally Jo Fifer and Lois Vossen. Graphics, Animation and Visual Effects: Eric Jordan. Original score: Michael Tuller.