Interview: Hong Kong Strong’s Brandon Li

July 15, 2016

Recently, Brandon Li made waves in Hong Kong after his short film “Hong Kong Strong” went viral on social media and hit major local and international news coverage including BBC,  HypebeastSCMP.   

In the 7-minute feature, Brandon not only captured all the famous sights and places in Hong Kong, but also the different strands of life, culture, and diversity this city has. We had the opportunity to meet up with him and chat about his inspirations and thoughts about the city.

Filming Hong Kong Strong, was that your first time in the city?

I had been to HK a few times before with family–the last time was about 15 years ago though.  So I barely remembered it.  Making Hong Kong Strong felt like exploring a completely new city.

What do you shoot with?

Mostly the Sony a7rii, a mirrorless compact camera.

With short attention spans these days, you’ve managed to capture the attention of cities you’ve filmed. What do you think is the magic ingredient in your short films?

I try to make sure my films have a strong sense of storytelling, even if the story is not exactly a linear narrative.  Audiences are willing to watch longer online content like Game of Thrones because of the storytelling.  Without that, our attention spans are very short, which is why I think most viral videos are under a minute.

What’s behind the name “Run Gun Shoot”?

Several years ago I had a blog about minimalist camera gear and shooting techniques.  I followed the mantra “smaller, better, cheaper, faster”.   I haven’t posted to the blog for a while, but the name sticks around because it’s how some people know of me.  These days I like to be thought of as a filmmaker rather than a blogger, so I promote the name Unscripted Films (unscripted.com).

How did you find the various corners and nooks of Hong Kong to film?

My producer and I talked to many, many people to find out the best things to film in the city.  I started off with kind of a “wish list” of things I thought were cool. Things like Cantonese Opera, the Yick Cheong building, Wing Chun, etc. Then we asked people who lived in HK what else to film, and they gave us suggestions like visiting Sham Shui Po, sailboat racing, lion dance practice.  I relied a lot on the advice of locals to help me find things beyond the cliched images of the city.  

There is a beautiful contrast of the local eatery and modern restaurant in one of the scenes. How did you come into contact with The Continental and the wet market eatery?

I wanted to show a high-class restaurant and contrast it with a more casual place, so I tasked my producer Ansley Sawyer with finding me the right locations.  She happened to be friends with The Continental’s manager Mostafa Zeineldin, and The Continental was the perfect fit as an upscale eatery.  For the casual restaurant, the dai pai dong where I filmed was a favorite dinner spot for some other friends of mine in HK.  They arranged a special family dinner there just so I could film them. It was a really fun experience being around all that energy and noise and seeing firsthand how diverse the dining options in HK are.

What was the biggest challenge when you were filming Hong Kong Strong?

The main challenge was probably getting permission from people to film them. I found that people in HK tended to be very camera shy, so it was hard to film strangers.  Almost everybody who appeared in Hong Kong Strong was a friend of a friend, or a family member.  This challenge actually helped me form more personal connections with the people I filmed, so maybe it was a good thing overall.

What is your favourite scene?

I’m proud of how the Wong Tai Sin first incense scene came together.  Filming the ceremony was logistically difficult because of the crowds and the chaos of the environment.  We spent weeks planning it, first obtaining press passes, then studying the layout of the temple and determining where to place cameras.  We stationed four camera operators around the temple to capture different angles. We even had a drone operator shooting overhead.  When all the shots came together, I feel like it gave the film a broader cinematic scope.

Who do you follow on Instagram?

I follow anybody associated with National Geographic.  I’ve admired their photography since I was a child, and now it’s a major influence in my filmmaking.  I like how National Geographic photographers find the beauty in the existing world, with natural light and real people.  Plus I’ve been lucky enough to befriend a few of NatGeo’s contributors along the way.

Any heartbreaking moments from your travel documentaries?

The poverty and filth I saw in some parts of India really struck me hard.  I saw people walking through fields of trash, families eating out of dumpsters, people missing limbs and dragging themselves on skateboards begging for money.  Seeing people living this way changed how I view my own privilege, and it redefined what poverty and wealth mean to me.

Reality TV has really blossomed since the MTV days. Do you watch any particular shows?

I don’t watch any reality TV unless you count BBC animal documentaries as reality.

We really want to know. Are “reality shows” real anymore?

Reality shows are not, and have never aimed to be real.  The simplest way to think of it is this: when you have a real conversation, it takes easily half and hour.  In a reality show, that single conversation would be as long as a whole episode.  So of course they massively edit what really happened, and that editing necessarily manipulates the truth, leaving out some things and over-emphasizing others. On top of that, reality shows are in a never-ending competition to be the most sensational thing on TV.  Which of course only leads to a more distorted presentation of “reality”.   

Where to next?

I’m in Hong Kong for now, possibly starting some new exciting projects here.  Perhaps I’ll be stopping by The Continental again soon for dinner! 

CULTURE
#Brandon Li, #hong Kong, #interview, #short film, #the continental, #travel
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