One evening in 2016, British filmmaker Matthew Robinson was drinking a cappuccino in an upscale Phnom Penh coffee shop when he realised something: everybody around him, even the servers, were taking selfies.
He couldn’t help but think of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection after being cursed by the god Nemesis, which in the end leads to his demise.
After finishing his coffee, he walked out onto Sisowath Quay, only to find more people taking pictures of themselves. It was at that moment that he decided to make a film about this modern-day fixation.
“I, personally, think it is not a human trait,” Robinson, the founder of Khmer Mekong Films, said. “Ten years ago, it did not happen, but now it is all the time and everywhere. It is like falling in love with yourself!”
Two years later, Robinson’s feature film – Kampoul Neak Selfie, or “King Selfie” – is now in Cambodian theatres, a humorous social commentary that is also pushing the limits of local film genres.
A black comedy, King Selfie tells the story of Sophea, a young man and avid selfie-taker. Like many others of his generation, he dreams of celebrity, and a series of fortuitous events helps Sophea achieve that dream. It doesn’t bring him happiness for long, however, as he is afflicted by nightmares resulting from his self-absorption. When tragedy strikes, Sophea decides that he has to redeem himself to find inner peace.
According to Robinson, the film reflects his own negative feelings about fanatic selfie-taking, though he realises that many may not agree with his curmudgeonly stance.
“The message is ‘don’t be obsessed with yourself’,” he said. “It is possibly damaging to you as a person if you fall in love with yourself. We don’t know what is going to happen in the next few years since even the young kids are doing it now.”
Robinson is not the only one concerned – even some governments, like India and South Korea, have banned the use of selfie sticks in pedestrian areas.
Khat Sombath Ketya, 28, who plays Sophea, said his own personality is reflected in about half of the lead character’s traits. After starring in King Selfie, Ketya is now reconsidering his ways of life.
“It is never good to love yourself too much,” said the actor, who is also a host on SEATV. “In the film, Sophea’s extreme love for himself leads to the loss of his friends and his love, and many other bad things. I hope the young people who get the message from the film will change their mindset too.”
While declining to give the exact budget for King Selfie, Robinson hinted that it comes to “at least twice as much as an average Cambodian film”. For him, that’s a risk, as the film doesn’t fit in the limited commercial wheelhouse of Khmer cinema, which is dominated by slapstick comedy and horror.
“I hope that the brilliant acting from the cast and the modern feel to the production will compensate for any lack of understanding of the theme,” he said. “I am glad to have made this film, and I wouldn’t change much of it even if our box-office receipts don’t quite achieve what we hope for.”
Kampoul Neak Selfie is now in local theatres and is in Khmer with English subtitles.