The two genres I’ve noticed thriving exclusively on Netflix in recent years have been cutesy romcoms and steamy erotica. The erotic thriller heyday of the Verhoeven 80s and the romcom heyday of the Meg Ryan 90s have long been absent from theatrical marquees, so Netflix has stepped in to, um, fill those gaps, so to speak. Somewhere between the quiet success of titles like 365 Days (erotic), To All the Boys I’ve Love Before (romantic), Deadly Illusions (erotic), and Always Be My Maybe (romantic), the streaming behemoth has gotten its algorithmic wires crossed and decided to split the difference with an erotic romcom set in the Korean kink scene, Love and Leashes. Not since Gary Marshall’s Exit to Eden has kink play been treated with such a fluffy, mainstream, sexless touch (unless, of course, you include other recent Netflix properties like the kink-themed sitcom Bonding or the kink-themed home improvement show How to Build a Sex Room). And since Netflix does not share verifiable data about their streaming numbers, we’ll never know how much demand there is for such an unlikely mix of theme & tone . . . unless they start commissioning more romcom erotica to fill out their splash page in the next couple years. All I can say for now is that Love and Leashes is as adorable as its existence is absurd.
This is a cutesy, formulaic comedy about an unexpected BDSM office romance, essentially Secretary re-imagined as a femdom romcom. When a new hire at a media marketing firm risks having his human dog collar shipped to work, his vanilla (but kink-curious) coworker accidentally receives the package instead. In their struggle for possession, the seedy Amazon order flies in the air as they both fall to the ground, flustered. It’s a kinky re-imagining of the standard dog walking meet-cute of two destined-to-fuck strangers getting tangled up in leashes while trying not to spill their Starbucks orders. Only, the rope bondage comes much later in the plot. The man is sensitive and turned on by masochistic play; the woman is naturally bossy but uninitiated to the scene. She finds a genuine thrill in transgressing the assumed submissiveness of her gender roles, though. She also uses the excuse of learning more about her new co-worker’s fetishes to attempt dating him in a more traditional, romantic dynamic. Sometimes they play at work, charged by the thrill of potentially getting caught. More often, they test the uneasy waters of their new mistress/sub dynamic in hotel rooms and in public, both pretending they’re only into the kink activities, not each other (for reasons that can only be explained as Romcom Brain). It’s the kind of nothing conflict that could be solved by a single, honest conversation, but that’s true of most romcoms, with or without the leather gear.
Of course, there’s an inherent incompatibility in attempting a romcom/erotica genre mashup; most traditional romcoms are excessively chaste. As a result, Love and Leashes is strangely sexless, considering all the butt plugs, harnesses, and ball gags that hang in the background as set decoration. In terms of actual, onscreen sexual activity, the most we get is some flogging, hair-pulling, foot worship, rope bondage, and the same dripped-wax fantasy as the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” music video. We can hear sex in the next hotel room over, but we’re in the room where a man is wearing a leash and yipping like a dog for comic effect – no insertions necessary. This might have bothered me more if the pup’s mistress-in-training didn’t ask (in Sex and the City-style narration) “Is it weird to play this hard without having sex?”, noting the absurdity of their chaste dynamic. She spends a lot of time online researching the standard dynamics of domme-sub relationships and chatting up anonymous kink veterans on message boards for newbie tips (setting up an obligatory, last-minute Gossip Girl reveal), totally unaware of how much sex she should be having with the sub under her “control.” A lot of the central conflict is in the weirdly out-of-sync couple finding a way to enjoy transgressive kink play and start up a traditional, adorable romance on vanilla dates – the same conflict the movie has in its own dueling tones.
This is both my first K-drama and the first movie I’ve seen adapted from a “webtoon” (originally titled Moral Sense), so I can’t speak to how well Love and Leashes translates its source material to a new medium. I’m an expert in scouring Netflix for low-level horny novelties, though, and it’s one of the better attempts at harmless erotica I’ve seen on the platform. It’s a little sexually timid & cruelly overlong, but it’s a decent throwback romcom with just enough naughtiness to make the genre’s stalest tropes feel freshly amusing & cute. The obvious next step for the platform is to get into the business of romcom softcore, but we’ll have to see how well this mashup does before they take that risk.