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Lost in the Throes of Passion – Star-Crossed Lovers in Asian Cinema

30 April 2020

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Lost in the Throes of Passion – Star-Crossed Lovers in Asian Cinema

Ah, love. The rose tinted glasses, the sunshine and butterflies – isn’t the best part of love the sweet, gentle feeling of a humming heart?

Wait. What about when the rosy garden is engulfed by red hot flames of passion? When demure, coy beginnings are taken over by raw unadulterated desire? When the magnetic attraction to someone is so strong that it goes beyond the norms of what love means to society?

Thus, the genre of forbidden love was born. Transcending race, religion and status, the connection forged with someone just cannot be denied and ignored – love that demands to be felt and claws its way in, through the tiniest crack it can find. 

It is no secret that Asian culture is more conservative than many others in the world. Those tight restrictions have served as a catalyst for a host of Asian movies looking to ride the wave of forbidden love. In light of Sinema.SG’s screenplay competition, The Inciting Incident, why not draw some artistic inspiration from these movies and try your hand at writing your own version of it?


The Handmaiden (2016)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Duration: 145 Minutes
Language: Korean & Mandarin

Film still from The Handmaiden/Credit: CJ Entertainment

The Handmaiden is director Park Chan-wook’s retelling of Fingersmith, a celebrated novel by Sarah Waters. Unlike the novel which was set in the Victorian era, this film is set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. The Handmaiden went on to win a slate of awards with the most recognisable being the BAFTAs for Best Film Not in The English Language.

Following the story of the maid (Kim Tae-ri) and her mistress (Kim Min-hee), The Handmaiden is an erotic tightrope walk between the two, muddled with crime, deceit and treachery. The most obvious breach of “normalcy” in the film is its extremely racy lesbian love scenes, especially because it is set is the 1930s where LGBTQ relationships were unspeakable.

If we look past the lesbian themes of the film, there is also the clash of status. A mistress, akin to royalty, having any form of relationship with her servants is frowned upon and well, forbidden. But wait, the blatant flouting of “rules” does not stop there. The mistress is Japanese, living in Japanese-occupied Korea while the maid is Korean. A relationship between a Japanese and Korean was definitely not allowed and would probably be seen as fraternising with the enemy amidst war.

The Handmaiden presents a relationship that has broken so many rules that it could be the gold standard for forbidden love movies. The film is written with so many layers, twists and turns to keep the audience intellectually engaged and constantly on the edge of their seats. What makes it so compelling is the writer’s drive to package so many elements together for the audience to explore bit by bit, instead of purely only milking the forbidden love angle. This film breaks boundaries with gender, status and nationality – a compelling combination for a daring and sensual watch.

Ram-Leela (2013)

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Supriya Pathak Kapur
Duration: 155 Minutes
Language: Hindi

Film still from Ram-Leela/Credit: Bhansali Productions

When one thinks of forbidden love, the undeniable classic that first comes to mind is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This timeless classic has been retold and remade countless times and was not spared by Bollywood either. After throwing an extremely attractive pair together, along with boisterous song and dance coupled with a riot of colours – Bollywood’s version of Romeo and Juliet was born. 

Ram-Leela is about the forbidden romance between Ram Rajadi and Leela Sanera, both  respectively belonging to clashing clans the Rajadis and the Saneras – exactly like the Montague and Capulet families. The two begin by lusting over each other and eventually fall head over heels in love, amidst bullets, violence and dacoity (the Indian version of banditry).

The entire film is shot in true Bollywood fashion with its elaborate dramatics but that works greatly for the forbidden love aspect of the film as the boundaries aren’t subtle. The fiery Indian temper helps fuel this enmity between both clans as several deaths and mutilation takes place throughout the film, just to make its point. 

The writing of Ram-Leela relies heavily on the chemistry between the lead pair to be effective. The emotional intensity of the film is a product of a tight and high intensity screenplay, which is a resounding success in partnership with all the other technical aspects of the film.

P.S: The leading pair in reel life actually fell in love in real life during the filming of the movie and eventually got married – the ultimate testament to the irresistibility of the fire that forbidden love brings.

Lust, Caution (2007)  

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Tang Wei, Tony Leung, Joan Chen
Duration: 158 Minutes
Language: Mandarin

Film still from Lust,Caution/Credit: Focus Features

Creating masterclass films is not new to director Ang Lee, with an impressive repertoire of films under his belt. Ang doesn’t go wrong with his formula for forbidden love with films like Brokeback Mountain and The Wedding Banquet, both of which dabble in LGBTQ themes very successfully.

Lust, Caution is very different from those two, with erotic espionage being the central theme. Set between 1930 and 1940, the film follows the story of a university student who entices a prominent political figure into an affair with plans to assassinate him. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, this period film embroils politics with lust and swept the 44th Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Film and Best Director amongst others. 

The film contrasts others mentioned in this list with how understated its lust is. Make no mistake, it does still have very raunchy scenes. However, the impact of Lust, Caution comes from stolen affection and telling glances, where the eye just lingers a moment longer than it should. 

What is effective about this writing is how it makes you feel like you are watching something that you should not be watching, with the quiet intensity of their dialogues, often saying less with words and more with expression. Sometimes, a successful screenplay is one that exercises restraint and allows the unspoken script between the characters to express their languid morality instead. Occasionally, less is more.


Ultimately, the genre of forbidden love will mean different things to different people. For some, the idea of a cross-cultural romance is simply unthinkable. For others, nothing, and I truly mean nothing, stands in the way of true love. Either way, the promise of being with a lover through all the boundaries that society has created is a hopeful and invigorating thought, enough to inspire creators to do their artistic best.

Try your hand at this genre with Sinema.SG’s screenplay competition, The Inciting Incident, where romance is the theme of the quarter! Hurry, applications close 7 May 2020!

As a bonus, check out this free screenwriting book to get you started on fleshing out your stories: https://nofilmschool.com/how-write-screenplay-during-quarantine-free-ebook?fbclid=IwAR24OCj6g14TEVVnIKFok_YbJb9ZCSXB4s5uEmQaCytiKEfxkVkFTII3QX8

Read More:
A Love Letter to Romance Films
A Little Faith Goes a Long Way – An Interview With the Inciting Incident’s Inaugural Winner, Chung Ming See

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.