Constructed from hundreds of hours of live-streaming footage, Present.Perfect. isn’t concerned with famous influencers or flashy content, but rather with the emotional truths of people seeking human connection.
Present.Perfect. opens with compelling monochrome visuals of construction and demolition, automated and human labour: a man chainsawing a dead tree, cable workers suspended midair, a rhythmic close-up of machinery. However, this front-loaded highlights package eventually trails off into a slower collection of talking heads, which struggles to pull the footage into a sum greater than its parts. With no structural framework beyond segments numbered one to four and an absence of narrative voiceover, director Shengze Zhu allows these streaming “anchors”, as they are called in China, to speak for themselves, presenting an intriguing if repetitive glimpse into their day to day lives.
Most of Present.Perfect’s recurring anchors are in some way socially marginalised, whether through visible physical difference — one man has severe facial burns, another has never sexually matured — or the challenges of being a single mother. These live vloggers chat to pass the time, avoid loneliness, and accept digital currency. As the Chinese government pursues online censorship and control, Present.Perfect. shows it is the most vulnerable members of Chinese society who stand to lose the most.
The most striking inclusions are one-off clips from dozens of individual streams. An older man instructs his virtual assistant to self-destruct, then to fart. Another man cleans a self-inflicted wound. Someone negotiates the potential fee from a viewer asking them to striptease. Divorced from their original context and names, these already exhibitionist actions take on a level of objectification that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. The tension between these performative acts, and what it means to watch them, is never fully resolved.
For a film entirely composed of found footage, the editing is uninspired and unmotivated, with most clips ambling along at three to five minutes in length. While it allows plenty of breathing room for each anchor’s commentary, the repetitive pacing makes it all too easy to tune out. The end result is one not of similarity, but of sameness.
What becomes clearer is the pervasive shallowness of live-streaming, and how it hinders its subjects’ search for human connection. Many of the anchors field the same questions from their live-feed audiences over and over, month after month. “Where are you from?”; “How old are you?”; “Are you a man?”; A man born with deformed limbs explains several times that he uses a spoon instead of chopsticks. Streaming technology may have opened new avenues for people to connect with others, but the connection itself is weak.
Amongst the endless Q&As, one streamer’s performance stands apart: a young, enthusiastic, and untalented dancer performs to the curiosity and anger of the strangers around him. In a moment of frustration reminiscent of the Leave Britney Alone Guy, he tearfully tells his audience: “We want to be happy. We don’t need to be professional, or sing well, or dance well, as long as we all feel happy.” While Present.Perfect. offers neither meaningful answers nor judgement, it highlights the optimism of its subjects, both alone and united in their search for happiness.
Present.Perfect. will be playing on 10 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Agnes Forrester is a screen writer and critic based in Melbourne, Australia. She thinks videogame movies are terrible, yet loves them all anyway. You can block her on Twitter at @cartridgepink.