“If there were no live streaming platforms, I don’t think I’d know anyone” a middle-aged grandmother turned unexpected online star admits, laying bare the sense of isolation and impossibility she feels in her life in rural China. Daphne Xu’s largely observational documentary Huahua’s Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations (花花世界, huāhuāshìjiè) follows Huahua as she goes about her ordinary days, Xu’s camera filming her as she films herself so, she claims, that those like her “won’t lose hope” gaining their own kind of courage in witnessing her optimism and positivity.
Huahua’s most popular activity is her furious dancing, often wearing a distinctive floral headband if adding a beauty filter to her videos as a means of altering her realities. Reality might not, however, be that far away. During one particular dancing video she suddenly stops and picks up a box of oranges currently on sale at her store and begins peddling them to her followers who often support her monetarily by sending hearts online. As Huahua admits, live streaming is a learning curve for a woman like her who is illiterate and was given little education. While driving home from a nearby commercial area, she emphasises the importance of early education for all children while suggesting that kids from the city learn faster not just because their schools are better resourced but simply because they interact with more people. Children in rural areas might go days without seeing anyone and only have regular contact with the same few family members and acquaintances limiting their ability to learn from each other which also in its way informs her appreciation for live streaming in the community it has given her access to which she might otherwise be denied.
Meanwhile, she’s clear on the importance of education for women in particular explaining that she’s dedicated to supporting her daughter’s studies so that she will have a better future than she has had not least because she will be financially independent which means she will be at less risk of becoming trapped in an abusive relationship. Huahua’s relationship with her husband seems to that extent to be unhappy, Huahua complaining that she has to cook his meals after working all day while no one cooks for her. During a later live-streaming session, she characterises him as violent but says that she gives as good as she gets suggesting that this is the way she mediates the power differential in their relationship. Then again, she also uncomfortably remarks that women who are killed by violent partners or continue to suffer domestic abuse bring it on themselves by being too “weak” to fight back lending a darker shade to her messages of no-nonsense self-sufficiency in implying that her drive is largely fuelled by a desire to be free of male violence and subjugation.
On her live streaming platform, she is very much in charge but also offers a fairly egalitarian sensibility in which each of her viewers is free to contribute as little or as much as they want whenever they choose without needing to think about hierarchy. China’s live streaming networks are also subject to a heavy degree of censorship, but Huahua declares herself unafraid to speak her mind and frequently uses profanity which might otherwise incur a ban given the prohibition against “vulgar” behaviour. Her followers seem to appreciate her frankness along with her willingness to offer advice and commentary on the things that might be bothering them.
It’s the idea of exchange which might in the end be the most valuable. Huahua’s videos are as much about sharing as they are showing off, allowing her to connect with others in the otherwise isolated environment of rural China. This sense of openness seems to have rubbed off on her daughter who dreams of studying languages and eventually becoming a diplomat channeling her mother’s “optimism” into an international career. She does though worry about the declining opportunities available in her community in which a new commercial development offers no promise of employment but in fact its reverse. “There won’t even be a place for you to buy jianbing” her teachers somewhat dismissively warn, speaking of an age when everything is automated. They even have robots to mix cocktails, what will the local people do to support themselves in the future? Like Huahua they may need to find alternative means not only to make money but to create new worlds in their own image free of geographical and social constraints.
Huahua’s Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations screens March 18 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of this year’s First Look.