Directed by Park Hyun-jin
Starring Seohyun, Lee Jun-young
Two office workers in South Korea enter a secret sadomasochistic relationship with the woman as the dominant and the man as the submissive. There’s a lot of intriguing words in this or any given logline for Love and Leashes, an ostensible romantic comedy clocking in at an epic two hours of whipping and bondage and the occasional hijink. What do you want from a movie like this? If you want a big, mainstream Korean movie about BDSM – in essence, The Korean BDSM Movie – it’s a no-brainer and you’ll likely be as satisfied as I was by the accordant trappings. If you want a solid rom-com with all those respective trappings, my recommendation will be longer and more convoluted. With the visual affect of a typical sun-drenched K-drama, shot with concern for beautiful faces and spurred by an eagerly open heart, Love and Leashes presents a strange case where everything absolutely works, except for the script – the bedrock. It’s beautiful and ambitious and something of a mess. Never frustrating, but imperfect nonetheless.
The movie is instantly appealing, setting up a fast-moving and promising K-drama relationship between two coworkers with nearly identical names. Jung Ji-woo is the modern woman who’s introduced by talking back to a sexist male superior, and Jung Ji-hoo is the new transfer, a younger man whose gender and station makes him an instant fit in this environment. Forget about petty jealousy or a cute rivalry, though. Before we’re even ruminating on the potential of this relationship, they pivot into the master/sub dynamic, with a signed contract and everything. Surprisingly, this is not a rom-com in the Hallmark mold, where the subject matter is window dressing on top of the creaky, rusted story formula. BDSM is the undeniable focus, and I was often shocked by how intense these scenes were. Moody lighting and intimate sound design underscore every dig of Ji-woo’s high heel into Ji-hoo’s back, and we’re equally treated to the bloody aftermath.
This structural impatience through anything that isn’t BDSM leaves the story pretty scattered, however, offering little in terms of narrative pleasures. There are no dramatic character arcs or great scenes of triumph or revelation. The obstacles spurring final plot beats feel sudden and then inconsequential. And yet, this isn’t a case of a movie being underwritten, before I threaten to characterize the film as softcore pornography. Love and Leashes has a lot on its mind, perhaps wrestling with that representation-adjacent burden of being The Korean BDSM Movie. The filmmakers establish early a welcome sensitivity to modern issues like homophobia and workplace harassment, and the seeming mission here is educational. We follow Ji-woo’s online research into being the best possible dom, and take plot detours to explore subcultural issues like hidden selves and even scams. The latter grants us a thriller sequence, another moment where the movie feints at commitment to one of its several ideas.
Singular character functions aren’t reserved by singular characters. Ji-woo has a work friend who gradually recedes and is replaced as confidante by a different friend. The final confrontation is not with the sexist supervisor but a board of executives we’ve never met before. Probably the result of adapting a longer-form source material, the world of Love and Leashes is larger than it needs to be. There’s a trickle-down effect, then, from the inefficiencies and flaws in the script to the characters to the exploration of BDSM itself, each of these elements totaling admirable ambition but not a coherent, dramatic curriculum. Despite its running time, there’s too little stretched across so many things, none of it connected. Why is Ji-woo so adamant that they stay cuffed to each other all day, through those ensuing hijinks? What really spurs her interest in BDSM in the first place?
To that, and more troubling, is there an equation being drawn between female dominance in sexual roleplay and female empowerment in society? If so, this is that most irresistible narrative I nevertheless had to resist, recognizing that the inverse is not equally true and therefore, and so on. Of course, my western eyes place South Korea at a significant remove from, say, Japan, whose cultural exports are so horny or outright pornographic that we took 60 years to accept it. With Love and Leashes, we might see a country at the precipice, thereby rendering whatever gaffes it makes the natural consequence of experimentation. For Ji-woo, her expression of dominance is also the catharsis of anger. The film is speaking most clearly when she’s dragging Ji-hoo around the office after hours and yelling at him, connecting Ji-woo’s dom awakening with her barely contained rage at the supervisor. She treats Ji-hoo how she’d like to treat that guy, and Ji-hoo loves it. But is that realistic? Is that healthy?
This could be a problem with BDSM in storytelling generally, that the players engaged in a “scene” are acting out a fantasy, and when captured on film, the cinema language must be tuned to finesse the reality within that. Where a couple in a non-BDSM sort of movie might erupt in a shouting match, uninhibited, that can’t really happen in a responsible depiction of BDSM play. There are rules about safety, and sarcastically, the more two people communicate, the less sexy it is. While Ji-woo and Ji-hoo keep an open dialogue, excepting an early instance where Ji-hoo is reduced to high-pitched dog yelps – which he and his actor Lee Jun-young take to with aplomb – there isn’t enough substantive that I can discern these sorts of questions, or nearly anything else in general. Nobody asks, “How did that make me feel?” I say that, for Ji-woo, being a dom is about catharsis because that’s what her most laid-bare moment suggests, and a suggestion may not be enough. Ji-woo and Ji-hoo have an argument in the middle of a scene, and he apologizes, triggering some anger on her part. Is he being sincere or only apologizing because that’s the way of the submissive? Is the movie even asking that question?
For Ji-hoo, there is no clear rationale for his submissive lifestyle. Ex-girlfriend Hana tosses out a number of possibilities, up to and including childhood trauma, but Ji-hoo is only ever interested in asserting his rightful place in society, which tends to negate any openness to explaining oneself. If we look at this from a bird’s-eye, it’s the typical setup where in the business world, he’s a man at the top of the hierarchy, and Ji-woo is the woman at the bottom. The only psychological rationale I’ve ever read for male masochism is something I find objectionable: that men in powerful positions want relief from their stress and responsibility, so they give themselves over to the trampling heel of a tiny woman. It’s like sexual irony? There are too many wrinkles in the dynamic of Love and Leashes to fit that bill, as Ji-hoo is younger than Ji-woo, and his professional place above her is arguable. He is not a direct superior, and Ji-woo is hardly a fainting dame ‘round the copy machine. For Ji-hoo, it probably isn’t about the irony of inverting a power structure or relieving himself of stress, though he does positively gyrate with anxiety.
His professional exterior is actually a shield, and soon it gives way to a frenzied, wide-eyed visage, the straining smile of Lee Jun-young making for possibly the most indelible image, in a film with trampling and foot worship. He’s aggressive, and that makes for a funny kind of paradox, that the submissive is pushing so hard, playing the predator in order to be the prey. He’s the one who initiates the relationship – albeit by a series of comedic happenstance – and essentially takes charge on the meta level. As he’s done this before and it ended badly, the paradox deepens with the crisis of a very self-conscious young man, who probably feels constantly judged and even policed. Again, a lot of intriguing ideas here, but this key character detail is only another vignette among many.
Prior to his relationship with Ji-woo, Ji-hoo was dumped by Hana, making for a subplot that mystified me. There’s a utility to it suggested by the structure of gradual reveal, where first we hear the story from Ji-hoo, then we see the story in Ji-hoo’s flashback, and then we meet Hana in the present day so she can speak for herself. To me, that means a truth slowly uncovered, especially when Hana is confronting Ji-hoo and challenging him – his narrative? – and acting aggressive enough to be misconstrued as a dom. I was struggling with this; maybe Ji-hoo wasn’t being completely truthful with Ji-woo about how his last relationship ended? Surely, the payoff to the subplot would clear this up, but upon Hana’s exit from the story, I’m not sure what her narrative purpose was. I’m then not sure if the story’s endgame resolves the too-broad problem of sexual perversion in a conservative society. What’s the message here? We should try to accept our fellow freaks. How do we get that message? I don’t know.
Like with my first viewing of Search: WWW, I expect I’ve missed a great deal of subtext, that these issues may not be issues after all. And while I’ve catalogued them exhaustively, I have to say I’ve enjoyed doing so. Even if Love and Leashes doesn’t tick all the boxes, it’s still an exciting example of a nonexistent genre, made all the more precious for starring a legendary idol playing not against type necessarily but certainly into my own expectations. What might be considered unspecific about the movie also makes it unpredictable. Love and Leashes is a bold and confident film, precisely directed and bravely acted. The script could’ve been fuller, the movie more emotionally resonant or as cathartic for us as it is for the characters, but there’s just enough in the performances to electrify our main attraction, the surprisingly steamy BDSM. So it’s kind of a jack of all trades, master of one – so to speak.