Imagine you could swoop in and out of Hong Kong’s living rooms and kitchens, rooftops and theatres. You see friends playing mahjong, a single man living in his cubicle home, the elaborate makeup being applied to a Cantonese opera performer. Now go watch Brandon Li’s seven-minute film, Hong Kong Strong. It’s the closest you will ever get to being the proverbial fly on the wall.
The video went viral almost immediately after Li posted it online in May. It inspired hyperbolic praise from the city’s press. “Greatest tribute to the city yet?” mused the Hong Kong Free Press. The production is certainly impressive, roaming through the city, revealing moments both spectacular and strikingly intimate. Even more remarkable is the fact that the film was shot in six weeks by someone who had just arrived in Hong Kong.
Li was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother is from New Mexico and his father is a Hongkonger who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. Li grew up knowing virtually nothing about Asia, let alone Hong Kong. “My dad did his best, but there were virtually no other Asian people around,” he says. “I was like the typical American kid growing up, except everybody thought I was foreign.”
When Li was eight years old, his parents gave him a video camera as a gift. “I was always making movies,” he says. He made a comedy video with his toys and screened it in class. “I even handed out review cards,” he says. And the verdict? “Most liked it.”
After university, Li moved to Los Angeles to work in film. He didn’t like it. “Everyone has this imaginary version of themselves,” he says. He found it aspirational but vacuous, a city built on rootless ambition. “In a way that’s what America is – a collective imaginary culture.” When he got an offer to work part-time producing videos in Dubai, he took it, mostly because it gave him the opportunity to explore the world. He visited Sri Lanka, Thailand and Bali, among many other places. He is particularly fascinated by Bali and the way it blurs
Li has become a kind of vagabond videographer, wandering from one place to the next, working a mix of commercial projects and videos like Hong Kong Strong, which he calls a “cultural profile” built around the lead-up to Chinese New Year, when the city is caught up in a frenzy of anticipation for the most important holiday of the year.
Last year, Li was curious to visit Hong Kong and try to understand the city his dad grew up in, so he arrived last November and stayed with an uncle in the Mid-Levels. He was immediately struck by the city’s seemingly endless layers. “There was the cacophony of the city and how much life is lived in the streets, but then there are these ivory towers where everything is perfectly calm and controlled,” he says.
In many cities, what you see is what you get, but Li quickly understood that Hong Kong is not a city that reveals itself easily. There are entire worlds hidden within its highrises. “I wanted to remove the front wall of all the buildings in Hong Kong and see what was behind them,” he says. Despite its reputation for constant self-renewal, Li felt the city’s energy was underpinned by something more profound. “There’s roots beneath the things people are doing every day,” he says. Hong Kong may have a modern veneer, but it’s a city built on centuries of culture and tradition.
When Li decided to make the film, he called up Ansley Sawyer, a freelance producer and frequent collaborator who was familiar with Hong Kong. “Once I pulled the trigger, she did a whole lot of the ground work for me,” he says. He gave her a “wish list” of scenes he wanted. “Whatever I make will be good as long as the ingredients are good.”
What is most amazing about Hong Kong Strong is the closeness with which it approaches its subjects. “I wanted to feel like you’re on the head of a fly, zipping inside people’s houses,” he says. Capturing people at their most candid wasn’t easy. Hongkongers are a reserved bunch, so Li and Sawyer had to rely on people with whom they had some kind of personal connection. “95 percent of strangers denied me permission [to film] whenever I asked,” says Li. “But if there was a connection, even a friend of a friend, they allowed me in.”
Even the most effortless-looking scenes took hours to shoot. At one point in the film, the camera pans out from the circular courtyard of Lai Tak Tsuen, a landmark housing estate in Tai Hang, to reveal a mother and her daughter playing on the roof. The whole scene lasts seven seconds, but it took four hours to film. “That’s about par,” says Li.
Li says he was nervous about how Hongkongers would react to Hong Kong Strong. It turned out to be a kind of Rorschach test. Some viewers interpreted it as an elegy to Hong Kong’s disappearing culture, but others saw it as a celebration of an energetic and distinct place. “Is this portraying Hong Kong as a thriving culture or a dying culture?” asks Li. “I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about the politics until after I was done editing it.”
Either way, the video was a hit, with 300,000 views and counting on Vimeo. Li continued travelling after the video’s release, but has been greeted by a slew of opportunities to work in Hong Kong. He is tempted to make the most of them. “I feel grounded here,” he says. It’s a bit ironic. For all its restless energy and transient population, Hong Kong may end up being the place Li can finally call home.