“The deliberate stiffness of the film effectively conveys how the reduction of its culture to a mere tourist attraction deprives Laos of its spiritual potential.”
Lois Patiño’s recent Berlinale sensation Samsara (2023) presents Laos as a deeply spiritual destination characterized by profound stillness and transcendental beauty. In his richly textured and carefully composed images, Laos becomes an otherworldly location cut off from the chaotic contemporary world and invites sincere contemplation. On the other hand, Kimi Takesue’s Onlookers, which celebrates its international premiere at Cinéma du Réel, counters this image by providing a more critical portrayal of this incredible country, drawing attention to the commodification of its culture and the continuous influx of western tourists. What emerges from this modest, somewhat repetitive combination of visually striking tableaux is a timely critique of the travel industry and exploitative intercultural exchange. Onlookers may be too restrained to mark a major breakthrough for Takesue, but it deserves attention for both its implications about tourism and, on a broader conceptual level, its exploration of the act of looking.
One of the recurring motifs in Onlookers is the sight of boats, which carry dozens of curious tourists burdened by their absurdly heavy-looking backpacks. These tourists are almost constantly occupied with their phones or cameras, treat the sacred sites around them as picturesque attractions, and don’t seem to have a lot of appreciation for local folks (including many monks in their signature orange robes). Takesue observes the travelers’ behavior in a detached, respectful manner and refrains from mocking or overtly criticizing them. When a tranquil, even venerated lake is (mis)treated like a mere pool by loud children and their parents (who are busy with taking photographs instead of warning their kids), one may even consider the presence of these tourists as some form of invasion or contamination, but Takesue never explicitly states that argument. She films everything from a neutral distance, preferring static long shots, some of which last for several minutes. This approach leaves ample room for the audience to come up with their own interpretations and refuses to limit the imagery in Onlookers to a single prescribed reading.
Takesue devotes considerable screen time to Laotians as well. In addition to the inevitable scenes featuring monks, we see local vendors in a street market and watch daily life unfold in the bustling city center. These images are presented in the same manner as the scenes depicting the tourists’ activities, with the camera remaining fixed from a similar distance. This choice is effective in making the audience aware of their own position as spectators, which is further emphasized with frequent instances of people being filmed (both tourists and Laotians) directly looking at the camera. This acknowledgement of the camera’s presence raises many interesting questions: Who are the onlookers that the title of the film refers to? The tourists are part of it for sure, but the filmmaker herself and we, as the viewers, also participate in a near-obsessive act of image recording and consumption, which is devoid of any spiritual effect or meaning. And perhaps more importantly, what does this act of looking mean in the specific historical, political, and cultural context of Laos? With western tourists watching, experiencing, and occupying a formerly colonized part of Southeast Asia, it is not difficult to attach a postcolonial critique to Takesue’s film even though it never directly deals with history or politics. Additionally, Laos’s status as a relatively isolated socialist state ruled by a communist party complicates this portrayal of apparent integration to the world economy and global tourism even further.
While such questions lay the foundations for a fascinating visual essay, Onlookers never really tackles these ideas in a detailed, satisfying manner. A wordless, static series of beautiful photographs is simply not sufficient to fully develop an in-depth exploration of tourism, colonialism, or capitalism. Even with a brief running time of 72 minutes, Onlookers feels oddly stretched and monotonous. It is built on rich ideas, but its execution lacks the expansive scope of Frederick Wiseman’s studies of institutions or the heart-wrenching urgency of Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, to name a couple of comparable examples. There is a certain flatness in the way Onlookers is designed and put together. But it must be noted that this is precisely the point; the deliberate stiffness of the film effectively conveys how the reduction of its culture to a mere tourist attraction deprives Laos of its spiritual potential.