By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Jan. 8 (Yonhap) -- As the theater turned pitch black, nearly 200 moviegoers were waiting for the screening to start, with some holding glow-in-the-dark sticks and tambourines. They were also ready to do something unusual: sing along.
As "Somebody to Love," a hit song by the legendary British rock band Queen, blared out, the audience for the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" began to clap their hands, yell with joy and belt out the number as if they were at a live concert.
"Let's sing together, loudly," shouted a young woman who sat in the back seat of the multiplex theater in Seoul last Saturday.
What's otherwise not allowed at a theater -- clapping one's hands, stomping feet and singing songs -- has become a new movie-watching culture in South Korea on the back of the film's runaway success.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" follows the life of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek), the charismatic lead singer of Queen, and the band's rise to global stardom. The band was created in 1970 in London, and Mercury died at age 45 in 1991 due to AIDS-related complications.
The film has attracted a cumulative audience of 9.64 million in South Korea since its opening on Oct. 31, 2018, according to data from the Korean Film Council.
The Queen biopic had grossed US$69.9 million in South Korea as of Dec. 30, higher than the United Kingdom with $61.2 million, according to data by Box Office Mojo. Excluding the United States, South Korea has become the top country in regards to ticket sales around the world.
The movie is set to smash a landmark 10 million mark in terms of the number of moviegoers in South Korea, whose population stands at some 52 million. If the film hits the mark, it will become the first music-themed movie and the sixth imported film to set such a record here.
The huge popularity of the movie has shown no signs of easing, mainly driven by viewers' repeated visits to theaters offering the singalong screenings, industry watchers said.
CJ CGV, Megabox and Lotte Cinema, the country's three major multiplex cinema chains, are running the singalong screenings of "Bohemian Rhapsody," allowing the audience to be easily immersed in group singing. At the singalong theaters, lyrics pop up on the big screen.
Top player CJ CGV's panoramic ScreenX theaters and its rival Megabox's MX theaters, which feature the Dolby Atmos sound system, also add excitement to the movie-watching experience.
"It is rare that a film is on screens for more than two months in Korea," Kim Dae-hee, general manager at CJ CGV's communications team, said.
"Repeated watching by moviegoers loyal to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' has boosted the ticket sales," she added.
The number of moviegoers who watched the film more than 30 times reached 68 between Oct. 31 and Dec. 23, and eight people saw the movie more than 50 times, according to CGV's research center.
The re-watching rate for the movie reached 9.9 percent as of Jan. 6, it added.
"When the film opened, those in their 40s who have nostalgia for Queen's music topped the audience list. But now, the audience base has expanded into those in their 20s and 30s," Kim said.
Last Saturday evening, nearly 200 moviegoers packed the CGV theater in Yeongdeungpo, southwest Seoul, known to avid fans as one of two meccas for the singalong screenings.
The climax of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the re-enactment of Queen's iconic live performance at Live Aid, a charity concert for famine relief in Ethiopia, in July 1985 at Wembley Stadium in London.
As Malek, embodying Mercury, started to sing the band's signature song "Bohemian Rhapsody," almost half of the Korean audience rushed to the front of the theater without hesitation in a bid to become part of the performance.
Scores of people waved colorful luminous sticks and tambourines in front of the panoramic screens.
Those at the front belted out hits like "Radio Ga Ga" and "We Are the Champions." They soon danced in a conga line as if strangers were their friends.
Those who did not dare to walk down to the front rose from their seats, clapping their hands and singing along to the music.
Several attendees screamed "Encore!" as if they were really at Queen's live gig. And most of the moviegoers did not leave the theater until the closing credits rolled up to the end.
"This is my sixth singalong experience. I really like the audience's passionate reactions," said Lee Seung-hun, who is in his 40s.
"I listened to Queen's music for the first time when I was a middle school student. This movie led me to understand Mercury's life and his personal struggle as well as passion for music," he said.
Kwon Ju-young, a 23-year-old office worker, said that only after she watched the movie did she realize that Queen's hits are familiar songs.
"I've watched the film eight times. I've been repeatedly watching the movie and listening to the band's songs," she said. "I will definitely see the movie again."
Movie critics said the film tweaked chronological facts and failed to adequately explore Mercury's sexuality and wild lifestyle. Some even said that the movie has homophobic elements.
But many South Koreans are apparently more hooked to Queen's songs themselves as they feel familiar because the band's tracks are often used as the background music of TV ads here or played at sports events.
"Statistically speaking, South Koreans love music-themed movies. But not all such films have been hits," movie critic Youn Sung-eun said.
"The audience is enjoying Queen's music. That's the main driver for the film's success here," she noted.