TOKYO — They are calling it the “Bohemian Rhapsody” phenomenon here, as the movie that celebrates the band Queen and the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury has rapidly become a national cultural obsession in South Korea and Japan.
In South Korea, a country of 51 million people, the film has already sold 9.4 million tickets, with box office receipts of $72 million, second only to the United States and even overtaking those in the band’s native Britain, according to film industry data.
Rising fast, in fourth place globally with receipts of $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 the photos by the band’s official photographer, Richard Young, and a hastily arranged tour by British tribute band the Bohemians.
Queen songs are taking over South Korean national television as well, appearing 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 staged a tribute ensemble in a televised year-end show.
In Tokyo, the movie is discussed endlessly in company cafeterias, bars and restaurants. Fans share their favorite scenes, including those that made them weep, and even trade tips on which movie theaters allow people to stand up, sing and dance along with the songs.
That in itself is quite something in reserved Japan, where moviegoers usually sit in absolute silence, even through the credits at the end of films.
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 movie theater in Nagoya, in central Japan, moviegoers are being offered a 200-yen ($1.90) discount if they turn up in a Queen T-shirt, 400 yen if they wear a white tank top and 700 yen for full Freddie Mercury attire.
The band has always been popular in Japan, where its successful 1975 tour helped launch it on the path to global fame. Music Life magazine rated Queen 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 a younger generation unfamiliar with Queen until now. Social media is buzzing with stories of parents recommending that their sons and daughters go to the movie. Sharing musical taste across generations is also somewhat unusual in the world of Japanese pop culture.
The country’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went to see the movie 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 at 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.
Critics said that the movie’s success was inspired partly by nostalgia for an era when music produced huge stars who could transcend all age groups in their appeal, but that it was also very much based on the enduring popularity of Queen’s music.
It also appears that Mercury’s troubled life has struck a chord here: 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 use and for taking liberties with chronologies and historical accuracy. That has been less of a concern here to people less acquainted with the band’s lead singer, London-based journalist Ginko Kobayashi wrote in a blog post.