Hao Wu (吴皓, Wu Hao, born 1972) is a Chinese-American film director, producer, and writer, director of People’s Republic of Desire, about China’s live-streaming phenomenon (links below) and the documentary ‘All in my family’, a Netflix Original Documentary launched globally in May 2019.
Related: Hao Wu biography and filmography
Technology executive-turned-filmmaker Hao Wu takes a raw and human approach to story-telling in an era when culture evolves online and across cultures.
Wu previously held management roles at Alibaba, TripAdvisor and Excite@Home.
His award-winning documentary films have received support from Ford Foundation JustFilms, ITVS, Sundance, Tribeca and international broadcasters.
Interview by Matteo Damiani
China-underground: When did you start thinking about making a documentary on this topic?
Hao Wu: Back in 2014 in the summertime I went back China to start researching my new film project, and just randomly one of my friend who is a financial analyst at that time asked me “since you work in tech for so many years, have you heard of this company called YY, it’s listed on Nasdaq, can’t you tell me a little bit how did they make money?”
I was immediately intrigued because for so many years I worked in the tech industry in China, but then I asked around about them with my friends and very few of them have heard YY.
So I started really researching it, “how can a tech company that even the tech people in the big cities don’t know about it, can be listed on Nasdaq?” So that was the first input to start researching it.
I was particularly impressed by the considerable effort of migrant workers to support their host. What kind of comfort to migrant workers can be provided by this kind of content? What are they looking for? Why are followers willing to invest so much money in a platform like YY to follow their idols?
Many of these migrant workers do not have much and lead lonely lives. This media unlike other unidirectional media like television or movies offers the illusion of interacting with one’s idols.
Many of the users participate for free, while others spend small amounts of money to get a sense of involvement.
I was intrigued because the hosts online attract all these digital gifts that cost so much money, and as soon as I realized there a lot of “reach patrons” and diaosi, the losers, all getting together in a showroom to worship them.
It’s fascinating because in the real world the reach and the poor don’t get together, but online, in this community, they are together.
How widespread is this phenomenon really? Are there other similar internet phenomena of this size?
In China, practically all people have tried a live streaming platform at least once. It is a very widespread phenomenon that has experienced its peak between 2014 and 2016, and which is now threatened as popularity by the new short video platforms, like TikTok, but is still very popular.
With live streaming you really need to spend at least an hour every night watching, so who does appeal to? People who are lonely, people who don’t have friends, people who stay at home, who don’t have an income.
The short videos instead are kind of funny, you can spend how much time you want on it, so no wonder why short videos’ popularity overshadows live-streaming. However, the audience appears to be very different.
Over the past few years, we have seen several crackdowns on the content of video streaming or video game streaming platforms in China. What is the government’s attitude towards YY?
The Chinese government is very sensitive towards these platforms mainly because they touch on some more sensitive issues such as sexuality. In addition, huge amounts of money are invested in an uncontrolled manner.
What is the fate of a host on his way out? What prospects can he have?
Virtually none. Many hosts try to continue their careers as much as possible because outside of that they don’t have much.
Did the protagonists of the documentary see it? What did they say?
They saw it and said that it is particularly accurate in painting this world.
Will the documentary be shown in China? Did you face any problem while shooting it?
We had no problem shooting it, also because the documentary addresses social and non-political issues.
The documentary was presented in China at FIRST FILM FESTIVAL and I saw a lot of interest from Chinese companies.
The editing took a long time, took a year and a half, because I had to portray such a complex ecosystem, the business rules, how they replicate the social status, and how the agencies try to promote the live streamers, and the different levels of relationship, it’s so complex, so it took me a long time to streamline the story enough, so the audience could potentially understand it, but at the same time to really retain the complexity.
Because what is fascinating is that we can replicate real-life online in this fantasy world.
So that took me a year an half, to find the balance between complexity and simplicity, between portraying this virtual community, versus the character stories, their feelings as their fate goes up and down, how they feel about the relationship with their families, how their real life is impacted as their online fame grows.
China from an external point of view offers the possibility of having a look at the near future, being literally a sort of huge laboratory for a pervasive integration of technology in our society. Is this towards which the whole world is heading?
All this is already happening, even if in a different way. Just think of the global success of a platform like TikTok, whose success is global.
However, the live streamer market has now reached its peak in China, and new visitors come from other emerging markets in Southeast Asia or developing countries.
It is not very different from youtubers. V-logging has never taken off in China for various reasons, but then live streaming took the role of V-logging in the country.
If you take a look to the internet celebrities on Youtube, that type of content, how they produce it, how they rely on stunts, controversy to generate popularity, it’s very similar to live streamers in China.
“All in my family” is a very personal and intimate project. Why did you choose this particular topic?
Me and my partner were going through the surrogacy process which has so many friends both straight and gay asking us about how surrogacy works. We just realized there might be some interesting story.
Originally I had planned just to do a film about how the surrogacy process. What kind of effort it would take for a gay couple to have kids.
So that was the original intention of the film. But later as I go through the process and dealing with my family myself, it’s kind of gradually shifted to an exploration of me and my parents relationship.
We just realized there might be some interesting story. Originally I had planned just to do a film about the surrogacy process.
What kind of effort it would take for a gay couple to have kids. So that was the original intention of the film.
But later as I go through the process and dealing with my family myself, it’s kind of gradually shifted to an exploration of me and my parents relationship.
Did you face any unexpected moment while shooting it?
Yeah. I think as any family, it’s just rare for a family member to really be sitting down talking about things even before we experienced the same thing together.
Like I never understood how much my coming out had hurt my family, my parents, I never understood it.
So I think doing this documentary is a really nice time and a nice opportunity for me to have in-depth conversation with my parents and to understand and for the first time how much pain they had to suffer through.
It’s just the emotional honesty and the depth of honesty has surprised me.
How society in China is changed in the acceptance of the LGBT community from when you left the country the first time?
It’s definitely very different now.
I mean nowadays before the recent crackdown on anything like LGBTQ in the media space which happened that started happening two or three years ago so far while not just the internet but in mainstream media there was a lot of discussion or a lot of mentioning at least of LGBTQ issues and characters.
So I think compared to when I left the country there is a lot more awareness of the existence of LGBTQ individuals and the community and that’s one major difference.
The second thing is that with the help of Internet and with the help of the queer community forming in big cities, because a lot of people migrate into the big city now, it’s a lot easier for gay queer peoplee to meet other queer people in the cities or online.
Internet is a big thing.
Will your next project be a documentary or a feature film? And will it be shot in China or the US?
Yeah I’m developing both documentaries and narrative features and this moment. I’m working on just to remake all my family into our narrative feature.
I’m exploring both in the US and in China right now.
Just see which project takes off. Because it takes a whilefor a project to go to be ready to go into production.