Live streaming has become big business in China. Locked out of the nation’s burgeoning economy, many youngsters have pinned their hopes online, seeking internet fame as a pathway towards a life less disappointing. Recent documentary People’s Republic of Desire showed us how cynical and exploitative the industry could be, how it often betrayed both viewers and stars in selling false connection and manufactured acceptance. Present, Perfect (完美現在時, Wánměi Xiànzài Shí), however, assembled from hours of live streamed content artfully regraded in crisp monochrome, shows us something else – the everyday bloggers who aren’t really in it for the money or the fame, but crave visibility and validation. 

Zhu Shengze opens with a literal crane shot, scenes of construction and deconstruction as if symbolising the rapid reorganisation of the modern China. Rather than the more familiar chats, we see silent scenes of people working – men shifting bags from lorries, construction workers, later a farmer who does talk in order to tell us about his desire to found an ecological farm and invite us to experience his new “agritainment” facility. Eventually we arrive at a factory where a young woman who will recur throughout the film patiently sews underpants while chatting to her livestream followers, apparently free to do so though she admits that it decreases her productivity which is a minor problem because she’s paid by the unit. A divorced mother of a three-year-old, later seen clinging to her arm at the factory, she patiently answers repetitive questions about boyfriends and hopes for the future. 

One of many marginalised in modern China, the seamstress finds a sense of validation in the appreciation of the fans hanging out in her “showroom” and occasionally shooting her various presents by way of thanks. Not everyone is quite clear, however, about what services are exactly on offer. A dancer resists the pleas of a caller offering big bucks for a private chat hoping to persuade him to dance in the nude. The dancer offers him a different kind of ill-defined service, but encourages him to try another channel which might be more open to his particular needs. 

That kind of potential exploitation is a definite threat, but so is the callous maliciousness which all too often defines internet communication. A lonely dancer experiences trouble in the real world as a belligerent older gentleman angrily forbids him from filming in his chosen spot, but later offers a melancholy monologue about his many haters who, for some reason, are keen to insult him when all he’s ever tried to do is make them smile. The final scene of the movie finds him surrounded by a small crowd and attempting the famous Gangnam Style dance routine while the bystanders look on in silent bemusement, their eyes mostly fixed not on him but on the camera. 

Yet for all that, for those who’ve found themselves exiled from mainstream society online communication can provide an essential lifeline. One young man calmly explains that his genitals have been removed and, as a consequence, he never went through puberty and has become a 30-year-old with a child’s body. Bullied at school, he holed up at home playing video games until they too bored him. Though declaring himself “not gay”, he tells us that a crush on a male vlogger showed him a way out, that becoming a live streamer himself gave him the confidence to go out and explore the world, eventually leading a more independent life with a job in a local factory. Another man we’re introduced to was badly burned in a fire, losing his hand and sustaining significant facial scarring, itself something that attracts relentless trolling and inappropriate questions. 

In these brief windows into everyday life, what we discover is a kind of reverse voyeurism as the streamers offer up their reality in hope of connection. They are careful to remind viewers that they rely on presents, and the money comes in handy, but they aren’t planning on becoming famous or deluded into thinking they can strike it big. Some are just in it for the fun, goofing off for the camera moonwalking and sad no one seems to be interested, dancing alone to a Mandarin cover of classic ‘80s hit Dancing Hero, enlivening dull and repetitive tasks by presenting them as a kind of teaching exercise as they chat amiably with friendly strangers, calling out their names as they flash up in the showroom as if they’d just walked into a familar neighbourhood bar. Others crave a sense of validation, but all are looking for a kind of escape from a rapidly changing society built on a tenuous link to invisible strangers craving exactly the same. 

Present.Perfect. screens at the ICA from 24th January courtesy of ICA Cinema.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

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