“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality”
Pop songs — ones that are able to capture the ears of the mass public and imprint themselves in our collective imaginations — are often those with catchy melodies: Repetitive tunes with choruses so memorable that they occupy a space in our collective consciousness. (So memorable, in fact, that hearing pop songs as ring tones for mobile phones has become a part of our everyday soundscape; something the film to be discussed touches on). The Freddie Mercury-penned Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody" is anything but conventional; its narrative-like lyrical composition gives clues as to its meaning — murder, a trial, class discrepancies, rebellion — but doesn't quite lend itself to an authoritative single interpretation. (Mercury's own reluctance to explain the meaning of the song only reinforces this.) And yet, it is an unmistakable tune that has a special place reserved for it in the public consciousness.
Ho Tzu Nyen, by far one of the most interesting and intelligent artists working in the audio-visual medium in Singapore, has taken on the task of deconstructing the famous Queen song: interpreting and localizing its meaning in his short film The Bohemian Rhapsody Project, originally commissioned and funded by the 2006 Singapore Biennale, Tzu Nyen. The Bohemian Rhapsody Project continues the themes of meaning and interpretation that Tzu Nyen has been pursuing in all of his film work. The short film Utama — Every Name in History Is I playfully challenged and illustrated myths about Singapore's founding father, and the made-for-television 4x4: Episodes of Singapore Art re-staged four key moments in the history of that nation's art, tackling questions of their meaning through tightly scripted on-screen debates between two characters.
In The Bohemian Rhapsody Project, the song's lyrics serve as the characters' dialogue. The length of the film is timed exactly to the Queen tune (5:52), and the entire work takes on the song's schizophrenic structure, changing styles at the same points that the song changes tune.
In a radical gesture for a Singapore artist, Tzu sets the entire proceedings in a courthouse (the actual courtroom of the former City Hall), beginning with angelically dressed young women whispering the song's introduction as they invite the camera to enter the trial, and ending with them whispering the last line of the song before opening the doors of the former City Hall, inviting the audience to step outside and breathe the air of a sunny afternoon. In Mercury's lyrics, we have a young man admitting his crime of murder; in Tzu Nyen's film, we have not one man but several, each dressed in prison garb — some shot comically, some shot self-reflexively, with the camera and crew visible. The individuals themselves are not on trial in the film; their presence is obviously staged. Instead, it's the Singapore judicial system, one that features the highest capital-punishment rate per capita in the world.
Those who will see The Bohemian Rhapsody Project at festivals or on DVD won't enjoy the same privilege as those who were able to attend the Singapore Biennale, and to view the work in the court room of the former City Hall itself (the site where the Biennale was held, something that heightens the film's reflexive power, I'm sure). But on its own, the film still retains a raucous power. Its structure is chaotic, its staging playful, its meaning is open to interpretation; the film, like the song, is all over the place. And like the song, it will stick in your imagination, in your consciousness ... and given its localized context, perhaps in your conscience as well.