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South Korea

Bohemian Rhapsody fever sweeps Japan and South Korea

  • The film is proving to be a huge hit with everyone from Tokyo salarymen to K-pop stars who were not even born when Freddy Mercury died
PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2019, 1:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2019, 5:16am

it has been called the Bohemian Rhapsody phenomenon – the movie that celebrates the band Queen and the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury has rapidly become a cultural obsession across East Asia.

In South Korea, a country of just 51 million people, the film has already sold 9.4 million tickets, with box office receipts of US$72 million second only to the United States and even overtaking those in the band’s home country of Britain, according to film industry data.

Rising fast, in fourth place globally, with receipts of US$56 million already, lies Japan, where word of mouth has played a key role in widening the film’s audience since it opened in early November.

In South Korea, Queen-related events are being held across the country, including an exhibition of photos by the band’s official photographer Richard Young, and a hastily arranged tour by British tribute band The Bohemians.

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Queen’s songs are taking over South Korean national television as well, featuring in commercials and reality shows. A major broadcaster replayed the 1985 Live Aid concert in December, while young singers from the nation’s enormously popular K-pop bands, who were not even born when Mercury died, staged a tribute ensemble in a televised year-end show.

In Tokyo, the movie is discussed endlessly in company cafeterias, bars and restaurants, with fans sharing their favourite scenes, where they could not hold back the tears and even which cinemas allow people to stand up, sing and dance along with the songs.

That in itself is quite something in reserved Japan, where film-goers usually sit in absolute silence, even through the credits at the end of films.

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It is not uncommon for people to see the film twice or more, with some confessing on social media how they are “hooked” or “addicted” to some of the songs.

At one cinema in Nagoya in central Japan, film-goers are being offered a 200 yen (US$1.90) discount if they turn up in a Queen T-shirt, 400 yen if they wear a white tank top and 700 yen if they turned up in full Freddie Mercury attire.

The band have always been popular in Japan, their successful 1975 tour helping to launch them on the path to global fame.

Music Life magazine rated them as the most popular Western band every year but one from 1975 to 1982, ahead of bands such as Led Zeppelin and KISS.

But what has been more surprising is how the film’s appeal has spread to the younger generation, who were not familiar with Queen until now.

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Social media is buzzing with stories of parents recommending their sons and daughters go to the movie, or even going with them. Sharing musical taste across generations is also somewhat unusual in the trendy world of Japanese pop culture.

The country’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, even went to see the movie himself on New Year’s Day, telling reporters afterward only that it was “good”.

One popular tabloid newspaper, Nikkan Gendai Digital, whose audience is mainly middle-aged men, even published an article suggesting “three tricks” to sound more like Mercury when singing his songs in karaoke bars or year-end company parties.

The tips, from someone who apparently teaches an entire class on the subject, included opening your mouth vertically, using your abdomen to breathe, using a little vibrato and even pumping your fist while singing.

In interviews, guitarist Brian May has spoken warmly of the band’s relationship with its fans in Japan, and thanked fans in South Korea for the “incredible” audience figures there. Mercury even had a Japanese garden at home, boosting a sense of affinity with the country.

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Critics said the movie’s success was inspired partly by a nostalgia for an era when music produced huge stars who could transcend all age groups in their appeal, but was also very much based on the enduring popularity of Queen’s music.

It also appears that Mercury’s troubled life have struck a chord: on social media, fans talked of taking courage from his “struggles” and relating to his “vulnerability”.

The movie attracted some criticism in the United States and Britain for toning down the wilder side of Mercury’s life and his drug-taking, and for taking liberties with chronologies and historical accuracy.

That has been less of a concern to people less acquainted with the band’s flamboyant lead singer, London-based journalist Ginko Kobayashi wrote in a blog post.