“Present. Perfect.” (完美現在時) – 2019 SDAFF Review

The documentary “Present. Perfect.” opens with a couple of informational slides to set the stage, but otherwise avoids presenting the full context behind the story.  Director Shengzhe Zhu instead tests the viewer, daring him or her to figure out what on earth is on screen during a 10-minute-plus stretch of solid B-roll featuring a sequence of disconnected scenes – save the fact that everything was shot somewhere in China.  But then clues appear, such as the slight shakiness and choppiness of the footage, as well as the occasional watermark showcasing a logo for an online live broadcasting service.

The characters are then introduced to the audience, speaking in front of the camera one by one in random turns, and the previously confusing B-roll starts to make sense once the dots are connected.  2016 marked “Year Zero of China’s live streaming craze,” with 422 million people going online to do just that by the following year. Zhu’s streamers make up quite a cast, with each person toeing the line between getting banned from services such as Huya or Douyu, and generating enough “TMI” (short for “too much information”) to win over fans, who contribute virtual gifts and real currency in return.

On one hand, such a platform gives a voice to the disenfranchised, turning them into celebrities in a country with 1.4 billion people.  A cherubic seamstress live streams when her boss is out, juggling potential workplace injuries while sewing underwear in a factory with stream of consciousness insights about her job.  A pig farmer talks about her work, then teases her audience into believing that she will live stream a visit to the toilet.  A disfigured man thanks viewers for their donations, then exclaims in excitement when several people randomly dressed up as life-sized Pikachu walk by.  On the other hand, the shock value stemming from such live footage causes their viewers – much like the audience for this documentary – to wonder if what they are seeing is, in fact, real.  Is that man really recovering from severe burns suffered during a fire?  Is that actual blood oozing from another person’s arm?  And why is Xiao Ai – the artificial intelligence voice assistant created by electronics company Xiaomi – being asked by one streamer to engage in disturbing behavior?

Now for the full context: 2017 was the year that the first version of the Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China was enforced.  Despite this measure, the popularity of live streaming has not waned, and the film’s subjects unreservedly discuss topics such as labor issues, disabilities, sexual identity and single parenthood in extended monologues.  Also notable is the fact that the featured streamers are chasing neither Instagram-perfect backdrops nor clout (unlike last year’s documentary “People’s Republic of Desire,” which focused on the competition between the crème de la crème of Chinese streamers).  By combating social isolation and the ennui of daily life, they satisfy themselves through their viewers’ feedback, both positive and negative, as it appears in real time on the screen.

Most important of all is the fact that none of the clips featured in the film exist online anymore, as streams are not archived.  According to the San Diego Asian Film Festival, Zhu actually spent 10 months watching and recording streams from her perch in Chicago, and wove together an escalating narrative based on the streamers’ voices alone.  Refraining from judgment (having never met the streamers in person) while opting for a black and white finish (creating the impression of historical footage), Zhu’s curation manages to elicit sympathy for its subjects while alluding to the dangers of excessive, passive consumption.

“Present. Perfect.” screens at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 14. Tickets are available at sdaff.org.