Skip to content

Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Reviews

Fun for the Camera

With 'Onlookers,' Kimi Takesue lays bare the performative nature of tourism, in all its graceless glory.

By Dessane Lopez Cassell

October 2, 2023

From Onlookers (2023), dir. Kimi Takesue, all images courtesy of the artist.

Kimi Takesue’s films are ones that reward the patient viewer.

Since 2002, she has crafted a series of winding, poetic travelogues—amid myriad other works—each anchored in an exploration of what it means to “look cross-culturally.” With her fourth installment, Onlookers (2023), she offers her clearest and most adept distillation of this guiding premise. 

Tracing its way through Laos, the film sets its sights on the endless stream of tourists—those often awkward, and at times ignorant, interlopers who traipse through the country’s rivers, markets, and sacred structures. Frequently, they veer just a little too close to passing monks and vendors, like omnipresent specters among locals bold enough to be minding their own business in public. Watching these clumsy antics, I’m reminded of A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid’s lyrical treatise on the neocolonial nature of the tourism industry: “You make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it.”

Throughout Onlookers, Takesue—who lensed, edited, and produced the project, along with co-producers Richard Beenen and Sophie Luo—utilizes wide, fixed angles. Working with a small camera, often set on the ground near popular landmarks, she creates a dynamic where others tend to enter or cross through her shots over time, some more harmoniously than others. The result is a series of slow-moving tableaus that sit with the tensions of negotiating space in a world increasingly defined by consumption. Audiences are invited to bear witness to this messy inequity, the camera patiently observing fellow travelers as they feign carefree enjoyment and shirk most definitions of personal space.

From Onlookers (2023), dir. Kimi Takesue.

At its most poignant—and often comedic—moments, Onlookers lays bare the graceless performance of “fun.” Each scene is a reminder of the weird, obnoxious caricature we’re capable of when given the license of vacation. We observe gaggles of travelers haggling with van drivers, shlepping obnoxiously large backpacks, and even atop a mountain, each more focused on staking out an unobstructed slice of nature for a selfie than beholding the breathtaking view. The chirpy shutter of digital cameras and smartphones competes with the ambient sounds of nature, each heightened in post to their most annoying and captivating degrees. Here, Takesue holds a mirror up to every viewer who’s ever been a tourist, as if deflating the balloon of obliviousness. It’s a scene that’s as predictable as it is amusing, a shrewd illustration of our era of “pics or it didn’t happen.” 

Despite documenting such antics, Takesue’s eye is, for the most part, more sly than judgmental. Scenes of travelers huffing along the main tourist drags give way to quieter glimpses at local life: a little boy enjoying an after-school snack, a sextet praying along the roadside, a scene-stealing dog with something to say. These are the worlds that exist parallel to the swarms.

As in her previous travelogues, Looking for Adventure (2013), Where Are You Taking Me? (2010), and Heaven’s Crossroads (2002)set in Peru, Uganda, and Vietnam, respectively—Onlookers eschews translations for non-English speech. The move, I’ll admit, first peeved then eventually grew on me. What initially lands like a reinforcement of the exoticizing gaze of tourism gives way to something that seems to hold nonlocal audiences at a safe distance, protecting a certain opacity amid the glut of outsiders. The contents of conversations between locals are none of our business, Takesue seems to remind—nor hers, for that matter.

From Onlookers (2023), dir. Kimi Takesue.

It’s in this realm of negotiating proximity and distance that Onlookers marks itself as a full circle moment for Takesue’s travelogues. While her preceding films attempt similar meditations on travel, the gaze, and their attendant power dynamics, they often slide more clumsily along the spectrum of tropes that plague the genre: from the contextless romanticizing of friendly natives (Heaven’s Crossroads) to self-conscious attempts at critiquing the colonial gaze while perpetuating the same power imbalances (think Where Are You Taking Me?, especially in its opening, surveillance-esque scenes). It’s with Looking for Adventure that Takesue most meaningfully flips the script. By training her gaze on fellow travelers, she’s able to gesture to the ways in which the machinations of the tourism industry echo those of empires past and present. Case in point, the fact that so many of the tourists in Onlookers are from France and the United States—the former being the nation that annexed Laos into a protectorate, while the latter spent over a decade dropping bombs on it, under the guise of a covert operation that helped grow the CIA into the war machine it is today.

To her credit, Takesue—a biracial American of Japanese, Italian, and German descent raised between Hawai’i and Massachusetts—is forthcoming about what spurred her own trip to Laos: an interest in visiting a beautiful place she’d heard good things about, enabled by the exceedingly rare privilege of a teaching sabbatical. Speaking during the Q&A at the film’s New York City premiere at the experimental festival Prismatic Ground, Takesue explained that she’d been eager to spend time in this specific place, where she’d heard globalization was taking hold much more slowly. And she spent much of her trip moving at this slower pace, waiting for “extended decisive moments” à la Cartier-Bresson. 

Takesue has noted that much of her work is interested in the tensions between naturalism and stylization. One could argue that a long-term cultivation of that same tension is precisely what has enabled image-reliant tourism industries to thrive for over a century, since British bureaucrats first began reengineering Caribbean landscapes and cultures to make them more attractive to European and North American travelers in the wake of emancipation. At the time, the camera provided the ultimate weapon against the financial losses of liberated plantations, yielding picturesque postcards and PR campaigns that drove revenue back to the wealthy in a new, legal form that they could control: tourism. For Takesue, the camera permits something else: a means of analyzing the way the picturesque is negotiated in real time—how and by whom such images are created and circulated, and who ends up captured in their gaze.

Onlookers is now screening at festivals across the US.