By T.K. Park and Youngdae Kim
South Korea may seem like an unlikely answer for the question, "Which country’s people have been the most enthusiastic viewers of Bohemian Rhapsody?" Yet Korea is a place that surprises: Recent industry data reveals the film sold more than 9.4 million tickets with a total box office haul of $72 million, making the country the top non-U.S. market for the Queen biopic that just won two Golden Globes. (Yes, that means the movie about Queen was more popular in South Korea than it was in the United Kingdom, where the band is from.) The popularity is even more staggering when considered on a per capita basis: U.S. revenue for Bohemian Rhapsody was slightly less than three times that of South Korea’s, but the U.S. has a population more than six times greater than Korea.
Yet the numbers alone do not do justice to how popular the movie is in Korea. Multiplex theaters in Korea offer "sing along" screenings, in which the audience can sing, clap, and stomp their feet to the band's seminal hits "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions." Across the country, it was not uncommon to see year-end parties in which attendants dressed up (or down, actually) in Freddie Mercury’s iconic white sleeveless shirts, with the whole party singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." International fans of Korean pop culture became perplexed as their favorite singers suddenly started covering Queen’s discography on music programs and variety shows.
How did a biopic about Queen come to be so popular in an East Asian country? As it is the case with all viral hits, the reason for the movie’s popularity in Korea is not reducible to a single factor. It helps that, on a per capita basis, South Korea is the world’s highest-attending film territory, and also a country that runs 24 hours a day, where it is common for filmgoers to return to the theater three, four, or five times to re-watch the movie they liked. (At Megabox COEX, a multiplex located in Seoul, the first screening typically begins at 8 a.m., and the last screening begins at 2 a.m. the next day.) In other words, when a movie goes viral in South Korea, it really goes viral. Also, music-themed movies tend to punch above their weight in Korea, a country with a highly-developed taste for pop music and karaoke. Further, it is obviously a factor that Queen was quite popular in South Korea during the band’s heyday — just as much as ABBA’s lingering popularity in South Korea propelled the 2008 Mamma Mia! movie into a viral hit, launching the trend for sing-along screenings.
But these explanations all fall short of answering the core questions: Why Queen, and why Bohemian Rhapsody? For it is not the case that every music-themed movie succeeds in Korea. The N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, is the second-most successful music biopic ever (trailing Bohemian Rhapsody), and earned far more critical praise in the U.S., depicting a group that is no less iconic than Queen. Yet it did merely fine in Korea, never reaching the same level of virality, despite being released just three years earlier than Bohemian Rhapsody. And while Queen was indeed popular in Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it does not explain the movie’s appeal to the young Koreans who were too young or too not-yet-born to see the band in action.
From left to right: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star as Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody
Ultimately, the answer is simple: the movie is popular in Korea because Queen’s music and performance resonate with the major themes in Korean pop music. For a comparable example, consider PSY’s "Gangnam Style." Although PSY was a complete cipher to the U.S. audience in 2012, "Gangnam Style" took America by storm. Of course, PSY’s humorous looks, his signature horsey dance, and absurdist music video are all a part of the reasons why "Gangnam Style" became a viral hit. But "Gangnam Style" also presented something familiar: an EDM tune reminiscent of LMFAO, the mainstream U.S. sound at the time. Americans liked "Gangnam Style" because it was a twist on something familiar. The same is true with Koreans and the Queen biopic: Koreans like Bohemian Rhapsody because it presents something familiar, because there is something about Queen that reminds them of Korean pop music.
And Queen presents something familiar to Koreans because a significant part of Korean pop music was shaped after Queen’s music and frontman Freddie Mercury’s stage presence.
The foundation of today’s K-pop was laid in the late 1980s, which opened an era that came to be known as the "golden age" of Korean pop music. In many ways, this era serves as the wellspring of inspiration for today’s K-pop idol groups as this era's tunes are the ones in which they grew up, and the ones their producers had been making. South Korea’s democratization in 1987, followed by the Seoul Olympics in 1988, opened the field for all types of pop music to flourish. A hugely diverse array of genres, ranging from pop, ballad (soft rock), hip-hop, trot, and adult contemporary, all had a meaningful presence in the mainstream. For the Korean pop musicians of the late 1980s and 90s who considered themselves rockers, the contemporary U.K. progressive rock musicians such as Pink Floyd and Queen were the gold standard to emulate. Deulgukhwa, for example, is considered one of the most iconic rock bands in Korean pop music history, and it is impossible to listen to their "Oh You are a Beautiful Woman" ["오 그대는 아름다운 여인"] without being reminded of Queen’s "Love of My Life."
Queen’s music found popularity in Korea as it collected an eclectic genre of music and presented through the format of pop-rock. This methodology behind Queen’s music is the same as the one behind modern K-pop’s inclination toward genre-bending music. Queen’s influence was particularly pronounced in Shin Hae-chul, one of the most important figures in Korean pop music history. Having debuted in 1988 as a member of a college band, Shin led an illustrious 26-year career as musician and producer, primarily in rock music. Shin’s emulation of Queen goes beyond his band N.EX.T's album jacket art or one of the albums being titled "Space Rock Opera." Shin’s innovative use of synthesizers is directly traceable to Queen, and in turn influenced the K-pop artists and producers who followed his path.
But arguably, Queen’s stage performance exerted an even greater influence on K-pop’s development. The glam rock trend led by David Bowie, in which music is presented not only through sound but also through stage design, choreography, costume, hair, etc., has significantly influenced Korean pop music, leading to the modern K-pop trend that focuses on the visual presentation as much as the aural. Freddie Mercury’s charismatic stage presence — an apotheosis of the glam rock trend — left a deep impression on Korean pop musicians in the early 1990s, as they were beginning to put on arena shows of their own. Shin constantly sought to emulate Queen’s stage for his own concerts. PSY has said Freddie Mercury was his inspiration.
This trend has traveled down in the development of Korean pop music, and can be seen today in modern K-pop as well. Unlike their counterparts in, say, Japanese pop music, the idol groups in K-pop tend to focus on daring visual presentation. In particular, K-pop idol groups from SM Entertainment such as EXO and SHINee have been the faithful followers of the glam rock tradition — with gender-bending makeup and costumes, all while emanating charisma throughout a large arena. The same is true with BTS, who also make effective use of the baroque and mythical visuals that Mercury often favored. In fact, these idol groups' lush visual presentation has been a major factor in modern K-pop’s international success.
Not frequently appreciated, however, is how the K-pop idols are finding success as heirs of Freddie Mercury.