"Hong Kong Strong" Director Brandon Li Tells Us How He Shot His Viral Video
"Hong Kong is a challenge, but one definitely worth taking," says the nomadic filmmaker.
Why Hong Kong? I chose Hong Kong because I wanted to explore the place where my dad grew up, where half of my family lives. I'm half-Cantonese but was raised in the USA in St. Louis, Missouri. I spent most of my life in the US and only visited Hong Kong a few times when I was very young. For the last few years, I've been living nomadically, flying around the world and filming the locations where I travel. I decided I wanted to finally explore Hong Kong and get to know my own family and culture.
My relationship with the city is very mixed. Part of me absolutely fell in love with Hong Kong—the vibrancy, the energy, great food, incredible architecture, beautiful nature right around the corner. A part of me was shocked at things like people chopping up fish on the street, the extremely tiny apartments, the pushing and rudeness in crowds, the yelling and cacophony. Hong Kong is a fascinating but exhausting place. I was very relieved to get out of the center of town and visit places like Sai Kung and Lantau Island where the pace is a bit slower.
The title: Why call it Hong Kong “Strong”? I wanted a title that simply, bluntly and powerfully captured the surging energy of Hong Kong. The city felt like a force of nature to me, with an identity sharply defined in spite of all the outside cultural influence. People in Hong Kong have to be strong to survive, to get ahead in life, even just to navigate the city day-to-day. To me it didn't feel like a chill, easy place to live. Hong Kong is a challenge, but one definitely worth taking.
Which shot are you proudest of? And which was the most challenging? At 1:13 in the video, when we zoom from an exterior of an apartment building and tilt down to a person sleeping in a makeshift bed. This is actually a composite of several shots and took me many hours to stitch together in editing. I love the dizzying effect of the changing perspectives—it conveys the way I felt when I explored the city, looking up in awe at the massive buildings. It also shows the harshness of some of the living conditions of the city, the cramped quarters. I didn't want to pass judgment about the way people live in Hong Kong; I just wanted to show the way things are for people from all strata of society.
Do you think Hong Kong is easier to make look good than other cities? Hong Kong is a dramatic, unique city full of character, and for that reason it lends itself well to film. So many other cities are rather generic in appearance, or lack the sheer energy of Hong Kong. I was amazed every day at the scale of the buildings, the density of the people, the beauty of the nature and dramatic skyline... I just couldn't put down my camera. Hong Kong is larger than life, and it's a filmmaker or photographer's dream.
What’s one tip you’d give to someone wanting to shoot Hong Kong? If you're shooting documentary-style, my main tip would be to avoid pointing your camera at strangers. Find people to shoot through personal connections instead. People in Hong Kong were very wary of my camera if they didn't know me in advance. Some thought I was filming for the government. I got a much better reaction when they were introduced to me by a friend or family member. And I got access to much more intimate moments, such as an elderly man praying to his deceased wife. Or a group of lion dancers practicing for their Chinese New Year performances.
If you're not focused on people, and instead you're shooting cityscapes and landscapes, I'd say don't ignore nature. It's so easy to just take the Peak Tram and get a shot from the lookout point, or to take a shot of the skyline from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. But there is so much beautiful nature just outside the urban center. That is also Hong Kong, even though it's not the iconic skyscrapers we normally associate with the city.
What about Hong Kong inspires you most? I love how many people in Hong Kong have such a strong sense of cultural identity. I kind of grew up without that—I was a kid from mixed cultures raised in a very white city in the midwest of the USA. I was kind of an outsider in that respect and just didn't feel all that rooted in who I was. My dad brought as much of his culture to the household as he could, but of course it couldn't be the same as actually growing up in Hong Kong. So when I saw the city [and its people] for myself, I felt grounded in a way that I've rarely experienced. And that is inspiring to me because it made me feel that discovering my own identity was a really worthwhile and rewarding pursuit.
You travel the world a lot. Do you think you could see yourself settling down? Where? I would love to settle down somewhere, I just don't know where yet. I think a lot of my nomad life has come from feeling a bit out of place everywhere I go. The traveling lifestyle is endlessly interesting and exciting, but at the same time I know innately that the places I visit aren't exactly home. So I think I'll keep moving until I feel that "just right" fit somewhere. I'm in no rush. That said, I did find Australia very appealing and would strongly consider spending a few years enjoying the breeze on Bondi Beach.
So how do we get your job? First, you have to fit your life into a suitcase. I gave up a very nice bed with a deluxe memory foam mattress. Some nights I question that decision.