(USA/Kong, 124 min.)
Dir. Shengze Zhu
In 2017, over 422 million Chinese followed online “anchors,” linking up to their “showrooms.” The “anchors” are video bloggers live-streaming whatever is going on in their lives and minds at any given moment; the “showrooms” are streaming platforms. Zhu Shengze’s two and a half hour extravaganza draws from 800 hours and ten months of online showrooming. She focuses on twelve anchors with a few of them taking on hefty roles in the film while others appear only fleetingly.
Except for one of the anchors, the stars of Present.Perfect. are eccentric, damaged, disabled, or all three. Some of them solicit “gifts” or payments, like “tiger-coins,” a type of digital cryptocurrency. All of them chat trivia, philosophize about serious matters, respond to followers’ questions, and let it be known how they’re faring in their often difficult lives.
The doc picked up the 2019 Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal’s Grand Prize for Best International Feature. In its citation, the jury called the film “A complex, cinematic work, a testament to the deep social, political and interpersonal impacts created by the Internet. In exploring a Chinese livestreaming platform, the film dissects the machinery of performance, surveillance, self-exposure and value creation in social media.”
All true, but in its impact, Present.Perfect. is more rawly visceral, and disturbing, than what the description suggests. Zhu didn’t choose anchors who work managerial jobs in the electronics industry and live in comfy houses. At times, the movie comes across like a fresco of a seriously messed up society. Rubble strewn streets look dystopian. Apartments and public spaces are less than welcoming. Nobody in the film seems happy and fulfilled although they do get off on the streaming, which helps them reach out to the world and survive.
An anchor in a Rod Stewart hairdo takes directions like a webcam sex performer. Nibbling on a snack, he disdainfully negotiates for “planes,” offering to strip, dance, and “blow,” whatever that means. He refuses to do a private session on Skype, and the person following him checks out. Meanwhile, a woman in white dances for her fans, lip synching and then singing, “I have been hurt by love.” A guy who insists he really did cut his arm shows his blood, saying, “I’m not torturing myself, it’s my hobby.” A pretty, frail-looking woman gets asked to reveal more of her wheelchair. Then there are glimpses of pigs fucking, a guy clambering on a tree with a chainsaw, an enigmatic pov through the window of a cockpit, and a farm girl who needs a bathroom break and takes her followers to a toilet of which she feels ashamed.
The movie’s transitions seem to be driven by contrasts rather than any thematic intention. As the main characters emerge, Zhu leaves them and then checks back in on them. Along with streaming followers, we get immersed in the world of a tiny sidewalk chalk artist, his hands soft pads with no serviceable fingers. In his streams, he demonstrates how he walks, and points out how handsome he is.
The cross-cutting structure highlights a guy convinced he’s a fabulous dancer, gangnam style. Actually, he’s stiff and robotic, his arm moves lame. Gangnam Man sets up on streets, plays an applause sound effect, and at one point, gets accosted by some kind of municipal worker who shrieks, “You can’t dance here, fuck off.” Worried about “Urban Management” giving him a hard time, the dancer tearfully contends with trolls dissing his skills.
An anchor whose face and body have been horribly disfigured by burns assures followers that his deformity is real, and says he has no purpose other than entertaining himself. At the same time, he creates his own mythology, insisting that he’s “stronger than God. One is bound for good fortune after surviving a disaster. I kill both ghosts and God.”
The strangest of the anchors is a 30-year-old who talks openly about how he never reached sexual maturity. With his round head and constant wispy giggles, he looks and sounds like a child – or a smiling Buddha. He giggles and smiles despite telling followers that his penis was cut off, and he’s desperate “to get out of here,” perhaps referring to the arid city-scape behind him.
In this doc, Andy Warhol, whose eight-hour-long single shot of the Empire State Building anticipated streaming, meets Tod Browning’s Freaks and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man could have been an anchor, streaming his ecstatic visit to the theatre. The anchors are in charge of their presentation of themselves, but for sure, Burned Man and Child Man no doubt attract the morbidly curious. I know someone whose You Tube channel shows a 17 second clip of her arm in violent spasm. It’s attracted almost 30K hits. Reality TV shows like Born Different and My 600-lb Life are hugely popular.
Of the anchors Zhu highlights, pretty young Jinjiang is the most “normal,” even though she streams while sewing men’s underpants in a factory. She works the buzzing machine as fast as she can, smiling, being charming, talking about boys, offering to mail stuff. She also asks her fans to stop asking her about her marital status, and we see her taking care of her little girl, at home and at work. It occurs to me that watching Jinjiang, we in the west are face-to-face and with the kind of person who made our boxer shorts and our iPhone.
Although some critics have claimed that Present.Perfect. is overlong and could have been trimmed, my interest never waned. The two and a half hours went by fast, maybe because what could be more fascinating than humans artlessly being themselves in all their banality and glory?
Present.Perfect screened at RIDM.