Onlookers Records the Lure of the Tourist Gaze

Morning birds sing, a rooster crows, a hammer beats steady. Four figures line the side of the road, each sitting beside a basket of rice. Some gaze down at their phones, one at her empty-skirted lap. Two are barefoot, while a woman in socks and sandals stares silently ahead in profile. A collarless dog stretches before her, nursing his paw as a moped speeds by.

Who are these figures? Where are they waiting? And what is their relationship to the person behind the camera lens? The opening minute-long shot in Kimi Takesue’s latest feature documentary, Onlookers (2023), does not answer these questions, nor do any of the following scenes that comprise the next 71 minutes. Without dialogue, plot, or musical score, the film is an exercise in the power of watching and listening. It positions its audience in a space of quiet, curious voyeurism, one fraught with the clear power asymmetry between the viewer and the viewed.

Onlookers still road
Still from Onlookers (2023) (© Kimikat Productions)

Relying on a stationary camera for shots ranging from 30 seconds to over five minutes, the film moves from space to space in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, seldom revisiting any setting or individual. Not knowing when a scene will end, we are compelled to both anticipate what might come next and to slowly absorb what’s unfolding onscreen. Many shots reveal the subtle tensions between tourists and the residents of, as the end credits reveal, what we eventually learn is Laos. Flip-flopping onto historic sites with cameras and bags flapping against their ribs, these foreigners feel all too familiar. It’s easy to cringe at the sunburned lads in backward caps, college girls splashing in tankinis, and giggling middle-aged women striking a pose. What they all share in common are the money and time to squander abroad while ogling “exotic” terrain and people.

At the same time, the film seems to ask: Is our voyeurism any different or better? Takesue’s exquisite shot composition invites our gazes to wander and nudges us to consider whether we in the audience differ all that much from the tourists whipping out their iPhones. As revealed throughout the documentary, the inhabitants of this country have lives of their own: attending temple, strolling through street fairs, jumping on an inflatable moonbounce.

Onlookers tourists
Still of tourists in Onlookers (2023), dir. Kimi Takesue (© Kimikat Productions)

Though many shots revel in Laos’s natural beauty — waterfalls, palm trees, mountains that glow a Tolkien green — Takesue takes care to capture the toll foreign influence has taken on both the physical environment and social dynamics. A teenage monk with a cigarette in his mouth sweeps discarded water bottles from the shrine grounds. In another scene, a clutter of backpackers takes selfies from the top of a cliff, ignoring the panorama. An iPhone paparazzi swarms a procession of monks collecting their daily rice. Rarely do tourists or locals look at the camera — suggesting, perhaps, how entirely banal lenses are in this space. Surveillance is so ubiquitous that only a few children seem to notice the director at all.

Immersive, beguiling, and productively unsettling, Onlookers confronts the power of the wealthy, predominantly White and Western tourist gaze to intrude on and warp its surroundings. Just as willfully, though, the documentary resists the trappings of pious finger-wagging. Takesue acknowledges the voyeurism inherent to being human, while also acknowledging its ethical consequences — whether we are physically traveling to foreign locales or sitting in a cinema. In a time when climate change and economic inequality globally merge as never before, the film examines the lure of looking with both empathy and necessary skepticism.

Onlookers (2023), directed by Kimi Takesue, is available for streaming online through Metrograph until March 23.

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