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December 6, 2023

Beef is a daring portrait of Asian American turbulence

By SOPHIA LIN | April 19, 2023



Lee Sung Jin’s Beef stars Korean-American actor Steven Yeun in a career-best performance.

I’m always oddly heartened when the simplest beginnings can yield the greatest stories. It’s almost like a sign that our lives really can go anywhere, and the bounds of reality, no matter what the cynics say, just aren’t that realistic. In Netflix’s Beef, the latest revelation from creator Lee Sung Jin, these all make for sorry understatements.

Beef’s beginnings are certainly quotidian, perhaps painfully so. While backing out of a parking spot, Danny (Steven Yeun) fails to see another driver, Amy (Ali Wong). She puts her back into her car horn and flips him off, all in typical road rage fashion, but this is Danny’s last straw. What follows is a neurotic dance of a car chase, complete with property damage and manic license plate recitation. At once, the basic ingredients of life — anger, triumph and all-consuming desperation —  are thrown into a blender with the lid blown clean off.

We’re then guided by a deft hand into dual glimpses of the protagonists’ lives. Amy, married to her rich nepo-baby husband George (Joseph Lee), has a ridiculously named plant business in the works of getting acquired. With a multi-million dollar deal ready to close, it would all sound pretty fairytale-esque if not for, among many other issues, her constant barrage of anxiety and self-loathing.

Danny’s life is only worse. When he isn’t neck-deep in the thankless job of being a handyman, he spends his time nagging his freeloader brother Paul (Young Mazino) and embarking on desolate Burger King wolfing sessions. For him, Amy’s bourgeois life is a pipe dream, and he focuses his efforts on earning enough to build a house for his parents. But, honestly, that alone might be a pipe dream too.

For Amy and Danny, the anger never really dissipates. It’s brimming in Amy’s eyes when George talks meditatively in his faux guru manner; it’s at the edges of Danny’s smile when a client tries to negotiate a lower price. It’s an unanswered frustration rotting at the root of their lives that quietly seeps into everything and everyone, especially those who are dearest of all.

Unsurprisingly, the escalation of crazy is headlong and exponential, set off by the pedal to the metal trigger that is Amy and Danny’s first sans-road interaction. Both still a bit in the dark about each other, their conversation gallops with a chemistry not entirely unromantic. In fact, for the rest of the show, it won’t be less than once that you question if the haters-turned-lovers trope might be underway. It’s a testament to the nuance brought to what could’ve been a standard bloodthirsty feud. 

When they do eventually get tipped off to each other’s role in the road rage melee, their mutual responses aren’t of pure outrage but instead flavored by a deranged delight. The game is on, life finally has a purpose and both may have just found a kindred soul amid a sea of unspeakable loneliness. There’s a sense of ascension that comes with razing the facade of civility to the ground, they find. But when all that’s left behind are dirtied hands and the same old guilt, the only choice is to keep on razing.

As early as its first scene, Beef shows its hand in the best way possible. We’re right up in Danny’s face when he flips from his harried mug to a mask of politeness, and it becomes clear that we’re about to see a closely observed character study. When he loses his temper, we learn that this is a dramedy of the no-holds-barred variety. When his most superficial actions feel drawn from a well of lived second-generation immigrant experience, there is no longer a doubt that Beef is here to deliver one of the best Asian American stories to grace the small screen.

It’s a feat that begins with representation but ends far beyond it. Asian Americans are on-screen, but none of them are that Asian American. These are people who are three more dimensions than they tend to be portrayed, who vary in ethnicity, background, socio-economic status and — never to be taken for granted — personality. Minorities who were historically refused the space to express their emotions come against rage, lust and transgression, and boy, do they express. 

But the present isn’t the present without the past, and Beef never forgets it. Amy is stifled by her parents’ emotional suppression while Danny carries the full weight of his parents’ hopes and dreams. What these two feel are not just amplifications of everyday woes: They are generational echoes of shame and hardship. It’s a cycle fertile with cultural influence that began long before them and will continue long after.

I don’t hesitate to venture that Beef might be one for the ages. Loudly and brazenly, it has opened a door for Asian Americans, ramming an SUV into our lifelong messaging to color inside of the lines, to drive away and don’t make a fuss. It reaffirms that we struggle and struggle hard, and these adversities are neither personal nor monolithic but wedged somewhere in the difficult in-between. As Amy and Danny both irately mutter at some point, there’s always something — something to hurt you but also something to carry you forward.

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