Boy meets girl, boy asks girl to be his dominant, girl turns boy into a happy submissive. Boy and girl actually live very happily later on because they are ethical, sensible members of the BDSM culture. Welcome to this version of a modern romance. Tighten your leashes and prep the ropes, we’re about to have some unconventional fun.
Love and Leashes, Netflix Korea’s latest movie offering, has landed just in time for Valentine’s weekend because it knows we all have… well, romance… in mind. Largely due to the cultural zeitgeist that 50 Shades of Grey had triggered years ago, kink has now made it to the mainstream (bondage gear as k-pop costumes, anyone?) and no longer really raises eyebrows.
However, for k-drama enthusiasts who have long enjoyed the rather cautious, vanilla side of romance, the idea of the main couple engaging in their kinky fantasies may come as quite a shock. Thankfully, Love of Leashes is aware of that apprehension and have decided to go via an intro to BDSM — bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism (or submission), and masochism — and kink instead of an onslaught of pornography that offers no real insight into the why’s and how’s of those who engage in it.
The movie begins when Jung Ji-hoo — a capable male corporate lackey, excellently played by Lee Jun-young (Let Me Be Your Knight, D.P.) — joins a publicity firm where Jung Ji-woo — an equally capable female played by Seohyun (Private Lives) works.
Note that one letter differentiates their names, and soon enough, their mail gets mixed up. Ji-woo accidentally opens a package meant for Ji-hoo, and finds that he’s ordered a collar from an adult shop. Finding out that Ji-hoo is someone who enjoys being a submissive, she — out of curiosity and his persuasion — eventually agrees to become his dominant. The two eventually draft a contract to be partners in kinky and consensual play, and over three months, we get to tour a small part of the BDSM lifestyle and subculture through our very unlikely couple.
Now, this is still an office rom-com, but instead of meeting secretly in empty conference rooms for a quick makeout session, we get treated instead to some blindfolds and whipping. Best believe that there’s a romance arc bubbling underneath all that, so expect the usual growing attraction, the obstacles that spring up in the way, and the usual persecution and judgment from outsiders who believe they have a sense of moral supremacy. (The film is actually based on a webcomic titled "Moral Sense")
Love and Leashes certainly fires up all cylinders here, delivering an unconventional romance, an introduction to kink, and a humanizing view of the subculture all at once without needing nudity or a gratuitous sex scene. Quite impressive, actually.
Having been hijacked by the directors and creatives who had a more hypersexualized vision in mind when they think of BDSM, one would not be blamed if you started watching Love and Leashes thinking it would be 50 Shades of Korea. Sure, there is a smattering of role-playing, some foot fetishizing, and a decent amount of leather and kink, but Love and Leashes is the rare film that actually adds more to the BDSM conversation by offering a handful of psychological insights as well as realistic characters who battle the same skepticism and doubts as any “regular” person would when they first come into that world.
The film questions societal gender dynamics, gender expectations, male entitlement, and even lays a light discourse on power, consent, honesty, and radical self-acceptance. It presents all these alternative concepts with an overarching tone of acceptance and non-judgement, without pandering to conservative mindsets nor begging for wokeness from its audience. And it does all this without nudity, graphic sex scenes, or anything “normal” couples would find too extreme or disturbing.
Again, quite impressive.
Love and Leashes is strangely endearing for many reasons. One, for a film that tackles such a spicy subject, it has an adequate amount of hilarity and isn’t afraid to be lighthearted about the perils and laughable logistical issues that happen when couples do kinky “play.” How do you eat lunch when you’ve cuffed yourself to your partner? How do explain to hotel security that there’s no dog; it’s only your partner barking and growling as if he’s one? Thanks to Ji-hoo and Ji-woo's adventures and mishaps, we may thankfully know a bit better.
Two, Love and Leashes offers an introduction into the subculture in a thoughtful way, without the need to hammer in gratuitous porn and explicit material. Through Ji-woo’s journey from regular corporate working girl to starter dominant, we come to understand why submissives and dominants do what they do, how they got started, why they seek the illicit and unconventional thrills, and how having certain preferences — when carefully and ethically exercised — does not immediately make one depraved or debauched. We get a peek into contracts, rules of “play,” safe words, and even the eroticism of power that is at the core of the BDSM lifestyle. But it’s not all fun and games; the movie also sets aside time to explore the more unpalatable and dangerous consequences one could face if one enters into that world without adequate research or preparation.
Finally, the film questions (and shades!) people’s disgust and repulsion towards the kinky and their inclinations. We all have dark secrets, but the kinky ones among us have found a way to live with theirs and celebrate them in a safe and consensual manner. In fact, it slyly raises an eyebrow on the “regular” people who scoff at those who practice BDSM but secretly indulge in their own deplorable secret affairs. So who really has “sick” secrets now?
K-drama fans who are used to the vanilla wholesomeness of 16-episode romances may find themselves shying away from this film because it may seem too raunchy or disturbing on the surface. But if you are of age, and you’ve always had a healthy curiosity for the lifestyle that some people lead — some of them could be your friends, even — this movie offers a rather fun and strangely endearing introduction to kink and the eroticism that fuels it. Like Ji-woo, you only need to let your curiosity lead the way.