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Meditative “Onlookers” Mesmerizes

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 15th, 2024

Onlookers (Kimi Takesue, 2023) 4 out of 5 stars

A cross between a travelogue and a tone poem, director Kimi Takesue’s Onlookers takes the viewer on a journey through Laos, her camera capturing evocative images of a country that sits comfortably betwixt tradition and modernity. Tourists enjoy both tubing and temples, their vacations (as well as Takesue’s) the source of our entertainment. We are as much onlookers as they, our gaze embracing the ordinary and making of it something special.

The compositions impress as much as the content. Takesue (95 and 6 to Go), also the cinematographer, delivers not only the stunning frames but the accompanying sound, as well. In addition, she edits. Filmmakers more frequently do better with at least a small crew, but here Takesue shows just what can be accomplished in a mostly solo effort.

A still from ONLOOKERS ©Kimi Takesue

Despite the great variety of landscapes we visit, it’s the people—Laotian and foreign—who more often than not hold our attention. They and a few dogs, that is. And though the temptation to look at the lens is strong, there are plenty of moments where we float in space, staring at a world seemingly oblivious of our presence.

And yet we are the main character. We observe, and that which we see changes through our eyes. Each viewer will thereby experience a different movie. Sure, you may wonder, doesn’t this happen with all films? To a degree, but this notion is built into the very fabric of the exercise here.

A still from ONLOOKERS ©Kimi Takesue

Often, what is outside the frame announces itself before we see it, creating a delightful sense of anticipation. Sometimes we never fully see it, adding a further sensual dimension, the aural supplanting the visual for that scene. It’s these alternating patterns of interactions with the screen that keep Onlookers constantly dynamic.

At times the film may strike us as no more than a fascinating series of live-action postcards, but even that holds interest. At others, layers of additional meaning emerge from the juxtaposition of one sequence with another. Takesue has fun jumping from her meandering sightseers to locals engaged in more purposeful pursuits, suggesting that we interrogate the value we place on different activities.

A still from ONLOOKERS ©Kimi Takesue

If in its search for structure Onlookers falls a little short of rising completely above a progression of carefully selected tableaux, it nevertheless mesmerizes enough to keep us entranced. It’s people-watching, but with a twist: they could just as easily swap places with us, extending the conceit and turning our mundane lives into spectacle, too. Reality is endlessly cinematic.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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