A chance moment of parking lot road-rage between Amy Lau and Danny Cho leads to a feud that shakes the two to their cores, dislodging careers, friends, families and who they believe themselves to be.
Directors: Hikari (1,4,5), Jake Schreier (2,3,6,7,8,9), Lee Sung Jin (10)
Created by: Lee Sung Jin
Writers: Lee Sung Jin (1,7,8,9,10), Alice Ju (2), Carrie Kemper (3), Alex Russell (4), Marie Hanhnhon Nguyen (5), Niko Gutierrez-Kovner (5), Joanna Calo (6), Kevin Rosen (7), Jean Kyoung Frazier (8)
Cast: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong, Joseph Lee, Young Mazino, David Choe, Patti Yasutake
Format: 10-episode limited-series with all episodes released at once.
Lee Sung Jin’s Beef launches as an absurd comedy. A serendipitous moment of road rage in a parking lot leads to a 10-episode long feud between new-money wealthy plant shop owner Amy Lau (Ali Wong) and scrappy construction manager Danny Cho (Steven Yeun). But what starts as light-hearted, if intense, bouts of petty vengeance turns into a raw yet incisive depiction of our modern conception of success and how it weighs on us both individually and collectively.
Danny struggles under the condescension of his clients and at times his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) – the former who, somewhat accurately, perceive him as a shady tradesman, and the latter who thinks he cares too much about doing things for others instead of living life on his own terms. He tries to be a good older brother to Paul, which generally involves him doing his best to impart old-school wisdom to him about making plans, chasing the things he wants, and eventually settling down with a wife of the same ethnicity. He also tries to be a good son to his parents, which generally involves him committing to a variety of get-rich-quick schemes in order to manage buying a house and providing for them.
Conversely, Amy has achieved a considerable amount of financial success but struggles with a fear that she will never escape the rat race she’s become so good at running. She’s spent two years doing her best to settle a deal that will allow her to off-load ownership of her Japandi-esque plant store Koyohaus. The success of the deal hinges on her ingratiating herself with pretentiously eccentric Jordan Forster (Maria Bello), cosmically wealthy owner of the Forster retailer franchise – a sort of in-universe Walton heir to an in-universe Walmart. Her worries are rarely assuaged by her himbo house-husband George (Joseph Lee) and his mother Fumi (Patti Yasutake) who to varying degrees manage to dismiss her frustrations while relying on her financially.
One of Beef’s many successes is the both painfully and humorously realistic depiction of the facades both, and perhaps all, characters’ wear in various contexts. At the season’s opening these deceptions are reminiscent of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite – the ‘heroes’ of our story mask contempt in the presence of a condescending homeowner-client, or feigning interest in the pompous ramblings of a potential business partner. Initially we see them maintained with a goal of fitting in, of elevating oneself, or seeming to, and in many ways deceiving those they are trying to obtain something from.
There’s a sense of needing to get paid by someone, that success doesn’t just arrive, it’s taken — a recognition that the money that elevates us comes from someone else, and we need to deceive them in order to get it. As with Parasite, the emphasis on status and class here make an anti-capitalist interpretation of the events quite effective. After all, is this inherent competitiveness not the cornerstone of our fine economic system?
In this context the characters’ anger and road rage, which initially seems so surreal and comedic, starts to make sense. What more reasonable of a response could there be? Who are these people in my way, blocking me from what I want in life? Don’t they see how hard I’ve worked – how hard I still have to work?
Though Amy and Danny are barely seen face-to-face (after the inciting incident, most of their interactions are via phone-call or a flurry of angry texts) there’s a strange intimacy to their relationship in the context of their lives, Amy and Danny’s feud serves as a sort of outlet, an avenue through which they can vent their frustrations. And in an odd sense the actions they take against each other are the only actions that are not taken with the intention of achieving success, or status, or wealth. What hooks us as viewers, and them as characters, is that these moments are in many ways the truth that reveals the lie – the rest of their lives.
The stressors the two face build over the course of the series. Anxiety builds with the characters misfortunes in a way that’s reminiscent of something like the Safdie Brothers‘ Uncut Gems or Good Time, lies spin out of control and to their own detriment and the detriment of others, Amy and Danny double down again, and again, and again. But in a cultural moment where perception and image matter most, the fake it till you make it mentality of the characters feels believable, almost practical – are you gambling, or are you manifesting? Adopting a winner’s mindset? Living the way you believe you should be?
In a sense, the biggest contrast between the feuding main characters and the supporting cast around them is the willingness to take agency (though not always responsibility) in life.
Amy’s husband George, an aspiring amateur sculptural artist with (to my envy) a penchant for comfortable Japanese fashion, longs for the same strength and independence he sees in his wife. But he makes no real moves towards it, he remains stuck, chasing after his parents’ approval with no regard for the needs of his partner.
Danny’s brother Paul, on the other hand, is eager to pass judgement on Danny’s focus on doing things for others, despite being similarly dependent on him and eager to passively make it big as a crypto-millionaire.
In his now famous ‘This is water’ speech (which oddly enough spends quite a lot of time on supermarket-based interactions strangely reminiscent of Beef’s opening), David Foster Wallace suggests that this kind of particularly modern, narrow perspective, this deep-rooted selfishness, is our natural default setting. But what he leaves unsaid, that Beef’s director so thoroughly fleshes out through his characters, is that this selfishness we default to, or perhaps inherit, by no means implies we have a sense of self.
In the show’s quieter moments, it feels like we’re watching two characters coming to terms with not knowing what they’ve really sacrificed, and not knowing whether what they sacrificed it for was worth it. Looming over it all is the constant sense that they’re so close to what it is they want, but that none of it really matters anyway. As the series draws to its conclusion, a beautifully crushing sense of transience presses down on the cast.
Even in spaces where Amy and Danny seem to have found chances to open up, Amy with her corporate inner circle and Danny with his Christian church group, neither seems able to truly be themselves. But we come to realise this is because these environments have conceptualised a display of guilt or honesty as part of yet another bargain, a deeper facade – a way to join a group, a price of entry. And so the guilt mounts while the pair have no hope of expressing it, and so no hope of shedding it.
Over the course of the season we see, through twitches and cringes and repressed tears and unrepressed tears, that the mask slips but never truly falls for these characters.
It’s this, sometimes wilful but always relatable, ignorance that makes the suffering of the characters feel meaningful, rather than spiteful or depressive. There’s an almost karmic sense of cyclical failures and repercussions. The characters deserve better perhaps, but in many ways they are very much the architects of their own biggest losses – by seasons end, neither come across as particularly moral people.
By establishing themselves as who they wish they were rather than their true selves, they both create and fail to meet the conditions by which they can be loved by others, or themselves. Beef asks us, do we ever show our true selves? What would it take for us to be able to? And don’t we owe it to ourselves, and those we consider close to us, to reveal that self?
But it can’t be understated how kinetic and suspenseful the show plays it, alongside these themes of self and success. What launches as a comedy turns suspense, even thriller at times and with only a few, very earned lulls the story races and burns comet-like into its raucous crater of a conclusion, leaving space for something new and honest to emerge.
Lee Sung Jin’s Beef is almost perfect. Upon finishing it I was struck by how uniquely empathetic, how human the experience of watching it felt. Barely a day has gone by since I finished watching it that I haven’t thought about it, considered something new in it, and found some strange relevance in it.
But on reading about the show in preparation for this review, there’s something I’ve found myself considering more than the others.
Danny’s cousin Isaac is played by David Choe, an artist, comedian of sorts, and actor who’s a friend of Steven Yeun, one of Beef’s producers. He’s also the artist behind the stunning title-card imagery for each episode, a series of varied and erratic pieces, each a wonderful fit for the raw emotional energy that the show channels. Choe‘s performance also adds a refreshing brashness to the cast, his character Isaac masks himself with bravado and boisterous energy, a fitting contrast to the calm reserve Danny and Amy often reach for.
In 2014, Choe featured on a podcast called DVDASA. On this podcast, Choe bragged about raping a masseuse during a massage session. He laughed, and when his co-host pointed out that what he had done was rape, that he was a rapist, he responded “a successful rapist.”
After negative attention from the press and his peers in the art community, he later alleged that the story was false and an attempt at making edgy jokes. In 2017, he followed up by saying that his willingness to make jokes about it came from a place of mental illness and self-hatred. This is somewhat plausible except when considering that another of his and Steven Yeun’s friends, Bobby Lee, has also admitted to rape on a podcast, and later walked it back by saying the same thing, that it was just a joke that came from a place of mental illness and self-hatred.
Since the show has aired and the remarks resurfaced, there have been a variety of avenues by which the showrunners, the creator, or Choe himself could have addressed what he said, and by all likelihood did.
As of the 18th of April 2023, Ali Wong has switched her account to private, Choe‘s company has moved to copyright strike the video from Twitter, and Beef is one of the most talked about and viewed shows on Netflix. Choe remains a ‘successful rapist.’
Thematically, Lee Sung Jin’s Beef emphasises the relationships we have with each other and with ourselves, but it also displays an awareness of how money, power, and class impact those relationships. In the context of this awareness it’s incredibly sad, disappointing, but ultimately unsurprising that those involved in the creation of the show would leverage their money, power, and class to completely dismiss someone’s suffering.
It would be nice to believe that terrible people cannot produce wonderful art. And, without endorsing or encouraging its viewing, Beef is wonderful art. But we must be reminded that however incisive, however aware, however poignant and empathetic our art may be, the world and systems that produce it remain.