Present.Perfect. review – China's livestreamers looking for love

Peter Bradshaw
Present.Perfect. review – China's livestreamers looking for love. This eerie documentary dives deep into the hundreds of millions of online attention-seekers desperate to make contact via tales of the bizarre and mundane

Shengzhe Zhu’s interesting and at times eerie documentary is an edited curation of hundreds of hours of live-stream videos in China. People (or “anchors”) broadcast themselves doing interesting or mundane or bizarre things and sometimes achieve massive followings. Their audiences interact with the livestreamers in real time with comments and requests and donations of virtual gift icons that can be redeemed for cash.

This is a social-media attention economy in action, and in recent years it’s grown to be an extraordinary phenomenon in China, with more than 400 million livestreamers in 2017, before the government started cracking down, ostensibly because of a tragic accident in which someone fell to his death while attempting to live video himself doing pull-ups from the edge of a skyscraper.

This was the event that avowedly inspired this film, and although this shocking footage itself is not included, the documentary meditates on the elements of self-destruction and narcissism implicit in livestreaming. We see a young woman working in a sweatshop sewing clothes (and chatting to her viewers), we see a man working on a farm, another who has never achieved sexual maturity, someone who has suffered severe facial disfigurement, a street dancer in constant conflict with the authorities – and many more.

In some ways, the livestreamers are offering a figurative version of a live sex show, and sometimes a literal live sex show, and there is something arguably needy and desperate, with livestreaming rewarding the exhibitionists. But some of the livestreamers are simply lonely and bored, and the democracy of the web has given them a voice.

Livestreaming appears to offer connection and community. But does it? Is it more like an addictive kind of celebrity, which brings with it only its own kind of loneliness? This is a film in touch with modernity, but I wonder if the livestreamers were quite as apolitical as this film makes them appear. And I was unsure about Zhu’s decision to correct all the images from colour to black-and-white, an arthouse-ification that the film didn’t need.

• Present.Perfect is released in the UK on 24 January.