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Documentary Review


Release Date: [Slamdance 2023]

"Onlookers offers a visually striking, immersive meditation on travel and tourism in Laos, reflecting on how we all live as observers. Traversing the country's dusty roads and tranquil rivers, we watch as elaborate painterly tableaus unfold, revealing the whimsical and at times disruptive interweaving of locals and foreigners in rest and play."


Kimi Takesue’s Onlookers can be seen as a step-sibling to the Oscar-nominated Ascension. Both employ observational nonfiction and allow the imagery alone to supply the narration. While Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension was ripe with commentary on Chinese commercial ventures, Takesue takes a lighter, and beautifully visual route, with her observations on the tourism industry. Onlookers specifically highlight Laos, but the documentary’s underlying message of why we travel is wholly universal. 


Onlookers takes on a visually striking tour of Laos. The country is lush and verdant with a countryside full of playful waterfalls and ornate Buddhist temples. But Takesue, who also photographs and edits, would rather you pay attention to the spectacle of the tourists. Humorous and frivolous at times; deftly uncomfortable on other occasions. These tourists, foreign or not, are obsessed with trying to get the perfect selfie at a waterfall or a video of a gonging bell in a temple. These tourists are faceless and fleeting; everyone accompanied with a mobile phone as an ubiquitous extension. 


Beauty is all around them. So why not capture the moment? Or, perhaps, is such a catch disrespectful to those in and of the surroundings? 


Onlookers is an engrossing movie. The documentary flows with a stream of consciousness traveling from one gorgeous location to another. The sightseers play on their phones, watch a subtitled episode of Friends, and queue up for their next ride as priests pray, vendors sell, and children go to school. Life in Laos continues. 


Takesue’s subtext wonderfully shows the dynamic opposition of the transient daytripper hotspot streaming their way through an old and last culture. Yet, Takesue does not seem to encumber her movie with overt commentary. Instead, she wants to show and becomes yet another guide with any commentary provided through the observation.


And as we watch these visitors stumble around in Crocs and cut-offs, Onlookers make us want to travel in order to observe. To take part, if only in passing, in something grandeur. And maybe, oh just maybe, we can witness it all away from a six-inch screen.

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