Onlookers : A Genuine Excitement Inherent in the Act of Immersing Oneself in Another Culture

Onlookers : A Genuine Excitement Inherent in the Act of Immersing Oneself in Another Culture

ONLOOKERS Women Give Alms © Kimikat Productions

Several times in my life, I’ve found myself grappling with an introspective question echoing eerily in my head: if there were no portable cameras, let alone smartphones, would I be as interested in traveling overseas as I am now? After a moment of contemplation, the answer is always yes. I believe I would still journey thousands of miles to experience the wildness of lavish nature and the surreal beauty of historical architecture and indulge myself in savory cuisine. We travel to seek new experiences or escape from the mundanity of everyday life. Essentially, traveling is a desire for something alien and new. But what if our everyday lives are now inseparable and can be carried around the world, packed in one handy, portable device?

I was prompted to revisit this thought while watching Kimi Takesue‘s Onlookers, a poetically fluid, magnetic visual statement that raises questions about the meanings of travel and the nature of tourism. Capturing the landscapes of Laos with her tranquil yet enduringly observant camera, the director’s third feature not only encapsulates the energy and vitality of this Southeast Asian country but also spotlights the cursory cultural consumption of tourists swarming all over the space.

In Takesue’s images, visitors flock to the sites in a village, taking pictures, then move on to another picture-worthy spot, creating a tide-like rhythm. Her static, long takes portray the colonial attitude of tourism flourishing in the country, wherein outsiders become part of the everyday scenery for locals engaging in their daily activities, who, in turn, serve as a piece of attraction for travelers.

Onlookers, 1ONLOOKERS Alms 1 © Kimikat Productions

“Critical self-examination is a key component of the work and my process,” Takesue defines in an interview for Talkhouse. In this tranquil yet somehow hypnotic visual manner, she establishes her most self-reflective position as a filmmaker who captures the uninhibited pace the country leads and simultaneously as a traveler privileged to seek leisure through her journeys.

Some pictures are more striking than others. The breathtaking view at the top of an immersive mountain where backpackers seem more interested in taking selfies than enjoying the spectacle. The awe-inspiring picture of tens of Buddhist monks lining up on the street to collect food and camera-waving travelers stepping in and out of the frame to snap some pictures of them.

“What do those who have the privilege to travel seek when they so often replicate and impose what is familiar?” the director asks.

Born and raised in a suburb in Japan, it isn’t so shocking to see foreign tourists enter our everyday lives, mostly well-intended but occasionally arrogantly oblivious to our manner and culture. What’s particularly captivating about Onlookers is that it looks at the innocently inquisitive and truculent eyes of locals.

It’s the wild stare that you receive when landing in another country, and the ones I used to give to those unfamiliar-looking guests in my town. Stripped of the tool of verbal communication, you strive to communicate through body language, imitating an unfamiliar tongue, and peering into eyes to decipher what the other person is saying. You become disparate and fully present just to be assimilated. Those intense eye contacts that Takesue’s camera sustains invite you to this intimidating yet thrilling endeavor of diving into the unknown; something you can only experience far away from home.

Ultimately, Onlookers serves as a compelling reminder of the genuine excitement inherent in the act of immersing oneself in another culture. It transcends a mere critique of self-absorbed tourism, urging viewers to lift their gaze from the screens in their hands and take in the beauty of their everyday lives unfolding around them. It encourages us to appreciate the richness of our immediate surroundings, fostering a deeper connection with the world that exists beyond the confines of a digital device. Through Takesue’s lens, the narrative evolves into more than a travelogue; it becomes a profound exploration of the transformative power of embracing the unfamiliar and finding beauty in the ordinary, wherever one may be.

Onlookers, 2ONLOOKERS Tourist at rest© Kimikat Productions

The film opened 2/16 at Metrograph, it starts streaming at Metrograph at Home on Friday, Feb. 23rd. Please see:,currently Kimi’s earlier films 95 and 6 to Go and Where Are You Taking Me? are also streaming at Metrograph at Home.

Check out more of Mako’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

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