“Onlookers” at Metrograph

    Long ago when I had a swell corporate job many of my coworkers would take short overseas vacations. (The joke was that it gave you an excuse to not respond to work-related cellphone calls!) But going to Thailand or a Mexican resort for just a few days sounded more tiring than fun to me. I’ve always thought that being able to live for at least a year in a different place was the only real way to experience it. I’ve been fortunate to do that several times–in San Francisco and Monterey, California; South Korea, in several cities in North Carolina and now Brooklyn. Meanwhile, smug commentators sometimes complain that Americans are too provincial and try to prove this by pointing out that few of us hold passports yet fail to acknowledge that this is probably because most of us can’t afford to travel widely in our own country much less go overseas.

    Some young post-college Americans, since the 1920s, once took a cheaper version of what–in the 19th century–was called a “Grand Tour,” visiting several European countries, a journey made possible by eurail passes and inexpensive hostel stays but in the last fifty or so years places like Thailand and Cambodia have become the chosen destinations for students. (As well as drug traffickers and sex tourists.)  Ask Google why so many young people vacation in Southeast Asia and it will tell you that it has “… long been a favorite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers, known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good flight connections.”

    Hawaiian-born filmmaker Kimi Takesue’s latest film “Onlookers” studies tourists in Laos by simply setting up a series of stunningly beautiful fixed shots of a landscape or cultural venue for an extended period of time as both native Laotian and tourists enter the frame. Though the tone of the film is meditative and non-judgemental, there are times when the tourists visually suggest ants invading a picnic. The film opens Friday, February 16 at NYC’s Metrograph. (Go here for more information, tickets and a schedule of Q&A’s with the director and selected guests.)

    Takesue has directed several acclaimed films, including “95 and 6 to Go” (2016), a portrait of her aging grandfather and “Where Are You Taking Me?” (2010), an observational documentary set in post-war Uganda. With “Onlookers” she worked as a crew of one: camera person, sound editor and later editor of the film.

    If, like me, you are a fan of the visual anthropology work of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel (“Leviathan” [2012] and the stunning “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” [2022]), you’ll be instantly captured by Takesue’s slow (though the doc only runs 72 minutes) and serene examination of tourism in this small socialist country. I encourage viewers new to this documentary approach to relax any anticipations about the work and just notice the rhythms of the people in the frame, listen to the rich ambient sounds recorded, think about why one sequence follows the next.

    Takesue, who is not staging any of the scenes, surely had to set up her camera and film at length sometimes, waiting for an insightful moment to come together. (In interviews she has cited her “kinship” with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment” in taking a photo.)  One of my favorite sequences involves Buddhist monks (see above), clad in orange robes, walking in a circle to collect alms from kneeling local farm women.

    Elsewhere, we hear roosters crow, birds singing, see tourists entering the frame taking photos of temples, taking selfies of themselves with beautiful mountains in the background. Tourists with ridiculously large backpacks walk by markets as the Laotian saleswomen organize their wares on the street. Tourists lounge in a cafe while watching reruns of “Friends.” They ride large tire tubes in a river to the tune of throbbing club beats as resort employees throw them lines to pull them back to shore. Another one gets stuck in the middle of a zip line over a lush jungle. An entrepreneur fills in the chalk board menu for his “Reggae Bar.”

    The people in the shots rarely pay attention to Takesue’s camera, possibly because so many other people are taking photos. The exception is a few shots of Laotian children who seem to notice. The contrast between the way the tourists and the native Laotians experience the phenomenon of tourism in the country is a key takeaway from the documentary.

    There are no cheap jokes or moralistic indictments in any of the material presented.  And yet one of the greatest ironies of tourism in Laos is not discussed in the film. The U.S. secretly dropped four billion bombs on neutral Laos during the Vietnam War and a fourth of the country is still littered with dangerous unexploded ordinance. Thousands of Laotians have died since the war by stepping on these cluster bombs. “At the current rate of spending, it will take several thousand years before Lao soil is bomb-free,” the Asia Society reports.

    “Onlookers” will give you a lot to think about but it is fundamentally a visually fascinating, immersive experience.

    Go here for ticket information.

    Latest articles

    More Reviews