Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Netflix delivers some cutesy Fifty Shades of Grey-style romanticism with Love and Leashes (Feb. 11), the rare high-profile South Korean import to not involve science-fiction or the supernatural. Jauntily directed by Park Hyun-jin, it’s the story of a stern professional, her docile new coworker, and the unique relationship they develop. A celebration of bucking stereotypes, accepting who you are, and taking big risks, this amusing trifle serves as yet another reminder that amour is often found in the craziest of places, and also that you can’t make someone love you—even via BDSM.

Ji-woo (Seohyun, formerly of girl group Girls’ Generation) works in a PR department, where her severe looks and no-nonsense demeanor are ridiculed by her boss and condemned by her friend, who suggests that Ji-woo’s inability to find a man stems from her unwillingness to play the customary googly-eyed flirty game. Nonetheless, Ji-woo finds a match in Ji-hoo (Lee Jun-young), the latest addition to their publicity operation, and a goofy people-pleaser whose pleasant and polite nature make him an instant hit with his colleagues. What they don’t know, though, is that Ji-hoo is harboring a deep, dark secret, which Ji-woo stumbles upon when she accidentally receives a package meant for him at the office, and opens it to discover a giant spiked dog collar. After failing to grab it from Ji-woo, Ji-hoo explains that this purchase is really just for his big-necked poodle, but his lie falls apart when the box spills over and Ji-woo spies a coupon from “The Largest S&M Shop in the Country.”

The idea that a meek man like Ji-hoo would ship his private sexual playthings to his place of employment is laughably implausible, albeit in keeping with Love and Leashes’ disregard for logical plotting. At various points, Park’s script (based on a webtoon called Moral Sense) introduces characters without properly identifying them, and has events take random, barely explained left turns. Were the film not so lively and deliberately cartoonish, such clunkiness might rankle more. Yet by and large, the proceedings move at a brisk and bouncy pace, detailing the simultaneously funny and sensual bond that forms between Ji-hoo and Ji-woo in the aftermath of the aforementioned dog-collar incident, with the former admitting his “propensity” for being told what to do, and the latter becoming intrigued by the possibility of ordering around a compliant partner.

Before long, Ji-hoo and Ji-woo—whose names are similar because they’re two sides of the same coin—are clumsily if earnestly agreeing to enter into a BDSM arrangement, replete with a contract that stipulates that Ji-woo will be the dominant, and Ji-hoo the submissive, for three months. Consequently, the two cast aside conventional notions of femininity and masculinity to explore a new frontier of risqué pleasure. Having been dumped by his last girlfriend Hana (Kim Bo-ra) for confessing his pain and humiliation-centric desires, Ji-hoo is delighted that he’s found a perfect “master.” Ji-woo, meanwhile, swiftly takes to her role as the queen of the bedroom, wielding a riding crop and red high-heeled shoes to erotic effect. No matter how out of the ordinary this might seem to others, Ji-woo and Ji-hoo instinctively recognize that their affair allows them to be their true selves.

Thus begins a corny romance in which Ji-woo embraces her inner boss through kinkiness that takes place in a variety of secluded rooms drenched in blue and red light. Park stages these centerpiece sequences as if they were oh-so-naughty, but in truth, there’s scant sadomasochistic energy, no nudity, and very little boundary-pushing perversion to be found here. Love and Leashes is a mainstream-courting training-wheels version of a taboo sex romp, its outrageousness conceived in the most milquetoast terms possible. That also goes for Ji-woo, whose burgeoning wildness is a source—and expression—of her strength. Far from making her a weirdo deviant, Park’s saga depicts Ji-woo’s fondness for tying up and smacking around Ji-hoo as proof that she’s a formidable ass-kicker who deserves to be on top of the food chain.

Love and Leashes’ softcore treatment of its material extends to the fact that, per rom-com dictates, Ji-woo—for all her interest in these out-there proclivities—really wants love, and believes she’s found it with Ji-hoo. In other words, Park’s film is situated in purely conventional territory, spiced up with some bawdy embellishments. The problem for Ji-woo is that Ji-hoo isn’t actively looking for a sexual or emotional connection through their “games,” and as an edifying online video explains to Ji-woo (and to us), that’s common when it comes to BDSM relationships, whose dynamics are more hierarchical than equality-based. Still, Ji-woo can’t help but pursue a deeper connection with her mate, culminating in a trip to the arboretum during which she cuffs their wrists together so they look more like a hand-holding couple—an outing that transforms into a rescue mission when Ji-woo’s friend Hye-mi (Lee El) is preyed upon by a BDSM imposter with rape on his mind.

Far from making her a weirdo deviant, Park’s saga depicts Ji-woo’s fondness for tying up and smacking around Ji-hoo as proof that she’s a formidable ass-kicker who deserves to be on top of the food chain.

“Just because I’m perverted doesn’t mean you can treat me like shit!” declares Hye-mi, and that idea generally guides Love and Leashes, which normalizes Ji-woo and Ji-hoo’s connection as merely an idiosyncratic vehicle for self-expression. Unfortunately, the film is sweet to a fault; there’s little actual danger to the duo’s carnal explorations, much less anything approaching hot-and-bothered steaminess. Moreover, their tale adheres to formulaic rules, replete with two late crises that threaten to ruin both their careers and their potential future. That things end with one character giving a big heartfelt speech is par for the course and furthers the impression that Park and company want to have their cake and eat it too, dabbling in BDSM while making sure that nothing truly crosses a line.

Despite embodying characters fashioned in only two dimensions, Seohyun and Jun make for an engaging pair, and help keep the atmosphere light and frothy throughout. The result is a romantic comedy that’ll appeal to a wide streaming audience—even if, in the end, it’s far too conservative and corny to arouse anyone’s libido.



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