Rarely have I experienced a more inspired double-bill than Friday’s pairing of Hao Wu’s Chinese documentary People’s Republic of Desire (2018) and Daniel Goldhaber’s 2018 mystery-thriller Cam.

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People’s Republic of Desire (2018)

Incisive, stylish, and stylized, Republic of Desire is a fascinating but ultimately very depressing exploration of China’s obsession with live-streaming hosts on the YY streaming platform, connecting the phenomenon to issues of economic disparity, the alienation of the young working class, and an unhealthy veneration of the wealthy. The documentary follows the efforts of two hosts in particular as they compete in a hugely popular annual competition to secure the most votes and be recognized as top talents; Shen Man, the girl-next-door chanteuse who’s been forced into the position of breadwinner for her entire family, and Big Li, a comedian loved for his working-class roots and irreverent humour. Unable to foresee a bright future for themselves, their often poverty-stricken fans identify with them fully, searching for a fulfillment and meaning in these online personae that they’re unable to wrest from their own lives. Ultimately, the film reveals that even this ultimate competition holds no real meaning, as the results are determined solely by the often anonymous capitalists who “manage” or promote the hosts.

While the subject matter is depressing, the journey is engrossing; hyper-stylized graphics work to illustrate and immerse us in the world of YY, and deep access to the hosts’ lives paint a vivid picture of the emotional consequences of their quest for (and brief achievement of) digital fame. A broader economic analysis would have been welcome (not to mention a deeper exploration of the disaffected youth who make up much of the audience for streaming), but the documentary is, overall, an entertaining and informative look at a bizarre and thriving subculture. 

Score: 7 out of 10 lollipops.

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Cam (2018)

A deliciously subversive and sex-positive psychological thriller/mystery, Cam is a sympathetic and humanizing exploration of internet sex performers. Alice, AKA Lola (Madeline Brewer) is a rising star on her webcamming platform, doggedly pursuing entry into the top 50 cam girls on the site. One day, she attempts to log into her account, only to find that she’s been locked out — and that another girl, who looks exactly like her, has taken her place. As her doppelganger’s lack of inhibitions catapults her higher and higher in the rankings, the real Lola struggles to regain control of her account — and her life.

The lean and refreshingly frank script by Isa Mazzei draws on her own experiences as a former cam girl, taking care to emphasize the craftsmanship that goes into the work. A perfectly-cast Madeline Brewer (Girl, Interrupted, The Handmaid’s Tale) turns in a fascinating performance. Or, rather, series of performances, as she vacillates between Lola, Alice, and the evil doppelganger in turns. Skilful editing lends genuine tension and dynamism to scenes which are, in essence, nothing more than a chat room full of lonely men. The visual delight is further enhanced by a vibrant hard candy colour palette and luxe set dressing. The film is judicious in its use of violence and special effects, but highly effective when it chooses to pull that trigger. Rather than gore, Cam relies on the highly unsettling nature of its premise, the emotional ramifications, and a dizzying level of uncertainty to build a sense of dread as electrifying as it is disturbing. Alongside Blue My Mind, Cam is one of my favourite films of Fantasia, if not of this year.

Score: 10 out of 10 date nights.