Few videos have captured the relentless and multilayered culture of this city as well as last year’s Hong Kong Strong, a seven-minute rollercoaster ride through the city’s iconic buildings, food, transport, homes and traditions.
When filmmaker Brandon Li posted the video online in May 2016, it went viral. For some, it was a celebration of the city’s unstoppable energy; for others, it championed its traditional culture. All agreed it was a dizzying depiction of the city.
‘I think people were looking for something uplifting,’ says the 35-year-old filmmaker. ‘I took a more personal approach, because people in the city wanted to see a positive representation of themselves.’
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hong Kong Strong is that it was made by a foreigner who had only landed in the city just weeks before.
Li, from St Louis, Missouri, is a nomadic filmmaker, working as he travels, making videos – ‘cultural profiles’ – of the places he visits. So far he’s shot Barcelona, Bali, Dubai, Porto and San Francisco.
He landed in Hong Kong at the end of 2015 to see family. He stayed with his uncle in Mid-Levels, spending his days and nights walking around the city.
‘I sought out everything that was unique to Hong Kong,’ he says. ‘I ignored a lot of Hong Kong that was the commercialised, globalised side of the city. When I saw the vibrant street life, the dai pai dongs, the different strata of cultures that mix to create Hong Kong, I was inspired to shoot.’
One remarkable thing about Hong Kong Strong is how close to the action it puts viewers. ‘I like a film to throw me in at ground level, in the middle of the action, immersed,’ says Li. To do this he focused on the local experience: friends clattering mahjong tiles around a felt table; worshippers at Wong Tai Sin Temple, scrambling to plant their incense sticks at a shrine; lion dancers propelling themselves into the air; a cook flash-frying a dish in a dai pai dong; chopsticks converging on a steaming plate – as well as swooping aerial shots of high rises and fireworks over the harbour.
‘Hong Kong is the ultimate jungle for urban explorers,’ Li says. ‘It makes me feel energised, hyperactive, and hyperaware of my surroundings. I feel a heightened sense of being present, because you always have to be alert in Hong Kong. There’s always something going on.’
Watch the video, and you’ll notice no green space at all – curious, given that 40 per cent of Hong Kong is country park. Li defends his decision to focus purely on the urban: ‘If I kept cutting away to greenery and pastoral scenes, I would’ve lost some of the drama of the story I wanted to tell.’
The filmmaker is behind the new entertainment video onboard Cathay Pacific flights, which you will see before watching any movie or TV show on the entertainment system. Like Hong Kong Strong, this 20-second intro video has a variety of shots exploring different sides of Hong Kong. ‘We ended it with an aerial shot of the city at night, partially to tie in with the previous video,’ says Li, ‘which we decided to shoot with a drone, rising over the city, for that same swooping feeling.’
‘It sums up why someone might want to visit Hong Kong: the buzz, the excitement of travelling through the city. It’s the feeling I get standing on top of a tram and riding the MTR; feeling the world whoosh by – endless things to see and do. Endless possibilities.’