Note: This post contains spoilers.
It’s rare for even one mainstream movie about BDSM to be released in a given year, let alone two. But just within the past month, two such movies have come out: the American They/Them/Us and the Korean Love and Leashes. Both movies portray mentally stable people who happen to be into BDSM, male s-types, and one lead character who introduces the other to the lifestyle. That’s where the similarities end, however. And one film tackles the topic much more successfully than the other.
They/Them/Us tells the story of Charlie (Joey Slotnick) and Lisa (Amy Hargreaves), middle-aged divorcées who are attempting to balance the challenges of parenting teenagers and dating, with many missteps along the way. Lisa is deeply involved in her local kink community as a switch (a word that is never once uttered in the film, oddly) when she meets Charlie on a dating app. They hit it off immediately and have passionate vanilla sex. It doesn’t take Lisa long, however, before she introduces BDSM to Charlie in one of the worst demonstrations of consent ever. After asking him, “Do I have your consent to blow your mind?” she proceeds to slap him as hard as possible across the face leaving him shocked and confused.
Lisa subsequently tries to get Charlie to pull her hair and spank her, but he’s too anxious to follow her instructions wholeheartedly. He knows it’s important to her, though, so he asks if she can send him some reading material (which she never does) and what she likes about it. Lisa says it’s a spiritual experience and likens it to running and thinking you can’t take another step but doing it anyway. She then introduces the concept of the D-type to him—implying that she wants him to take on this role—but doesn’t explain much else about BDSM. Instead, she tries to get him to do things that he’s clearly uncomfortable with and then seems to almost forget about BDSM for a while until Charlie brings it up again.
To be fair, these two characters have their hands full with their troubled kids and the fact that they decide to move in together à la the Brady Bunch after dating for approximately 10 minutes, so it’s understandable that BDSM isn’t the center of their universe. This is also part of the problem, however, as the movie has too many plot lines, none of which are resolved satisfactorily, including the BDSM one.
Despite his awkward kinky interactions with Lisa, Charlie wants to learn more and visits a domme to get some training. This encounter also falls short on the consent front. There’s no negotiation at all before the woman shoves a gag in his mouth and tells him to drop a ball if anything becomes too much. After their scene, she warns him about sub drop and tells him not to go back to work but doesn’t offer any aftercare. We then see Charlie in the film class he teaches sobbing as the class watches a comedy.
The BDSM plot line reaches its climax when Charlie decides to attend a local BDSM conference not knowing that Lisa will also be there for one last hurrah with her kink group, which she largely abandoned once she became involved with Charlie. They recognize each other while in the midst of their individual flogging scenes (he as a bottom in his scene and she as a top in hers). In one of the nicer scenes in the movie, she immediately realizes he’s there because he wanted to learn more about BDSM and takes over his scene, telling her domme friend that “if anyone’s going to whip my boyfriend, it’s me.” As they leave the conference, Charlie announces that he prefers being a sub.
It would have been nice to see how Lisa’s switchiness and Charlie’s newfound sub identity played out, but this is where the BDSM portion of the movie ends. The rest of the film involves Charlie’s son’s spiraling drug problem and overall challenges related to the two families merging. The last 20 minutes were like a short bumper car ride with an abrupt and unsatisfying halt.
Love and Leashes
In contrast, Love and Leashes is a much more fully realized movie about BDSM that portrays consent, negotiation, and communication without sacrificing any charm along the way.
Ji-hoo and Ji-woo (played by Joon-Young Lee and Seohyun, respectively—former K-pop stars) work together on the same team and have an interest in each other. Neither does anything about it until Ji-woo accidentally receives a package for Ji-hoo at the office due to their similar names. Just as she opens it and pulls out a studded collar, Ji-hoo races to her desk and tells her it’s for his dog. The gig is up, however, when a flier for a sex toy store falls out of the box. Much to Ji-hoo’s surprise, Ji-woo remains completely calm and non-judgmental, which intensifies Ji-hoo’s crush on her.
From that point on, things quickly escalate. Ji-hoo explains that he’s into BDSM and asks Ji-woo if she would consider being his master. While this is a bit of a leap given that they don’t really know each other, and she knows nothing about BDSM, it does provide a convenient way to introduce refreshingly accurate exposition about BDSM as Ji-woo starts to research it. After reading and thinking about it more, Ji-woo agrees to be Ji-hoo’s master (but insists that he not call her that) and presents him with a three-month contract setting forth the terms of the arrangement.
Ji-woo settles into her role as a domme quite naturally both in terms of taking control and taking care of Ji-hoo as her submissive. She gives him a pair of glasses to wear at work when he wants her to be in charge, and he rarely removes them while in the office from that time on. Despite the 24/7 leanings of their dynamic, they slip in and out of scenes easily and naturally to communicate and check in in a way that seems entirely realistic. And as the one with more experience, Ji-hoo even offers to help plan their second scene after Ji-woo feels that her first attempt was less than successful. This is a sweet reminder that roles within a BDSM dynamic don’t have to be completely rigid at all times. Ji-woo doesn’t solely rely on Ji-hoo’s experience, however. She continues researching different aspects of BDSM throughout the movie as she plans scenes and practices ahead of time (what aspiring rigger hasn’t done some shibari on a giant stuffed animal or other things lying around the house?).
Not all of Ji-woo’s ideas pan out well, which adds a great realistic touch. She quickly learns the downsides of public kink when she and Ji-hoo go to an arboretum, and she insists that they remain handcuffed to each other the entire time they’re there. This is marginally successful as they stroll along the paths, but becomes disastrous when they attempt to eat lunch very clumsily and other people see what’s going on. Fortunately, they realize the error of their ways, and Ji-woo suggests that they try again another time in a safer environment. Both characters also find out the hard way that indulging in kinky playtime at the office is better left to fantasy.
The movie also does an excellent job of portraying common negative experiences with BDSM. One of Ji-woo’s friends is a female sub who narrowly avoids getting assaulted by a guy she meets online who has no understanding of consent. And Ji-hoo is still haunted by his ex-girlfriend who mercilessly kink shamed him when he revealed his submissive desires to her. In fact, that experience is the reason he refuses to become romantically or sexually involved with Ji-woo even after she tells him she wants a romantic relationship.
We won’t spoil the rest, but given that the movie is a romantic comedy, you can probably determine how it ends. The most important thing to know is that this is easily one of the best movies about kink to date. Unlike They/Them/Us, Love and Leashes doesn’t trade responsible examples of consent and negotiation for “comic” relief. It accurately and realistically portrays a BDSM dynamic with charm, humor, and heart.