In ‘Beef’, Everyone Goes Through the Meat Grinder

Every character in Lee Sung Jin’s TV series orbits around an unhappy nexus of high art, capital and social clout

BY Diana Seo Hyung Lee in Film , Opinion | 08 JUN 23

In Lee Sung Jin’s TV show Beef (2023), Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong) seem at first to be well-matched opposites. Cho is a general home contractor failing in his efforts to care for his family. His parents have returned to their native Korea after their business in the US – a small hotel – failed, and his brother Paul (Young Mazino) stays at home playing video games and gambling with cryptocurrency. Lau, on the other hand, is a successful Vietnamese-Chinese American businesswoman, owner of a house plant store, Kōyōhaus, who lives with her stay-at-home Japanese-American ceramicist husband George Naikai (Joseph Lee) and their daughter June in a newly renovated home in Calabasas. Furnished with mid-century modern pieces, its carefully calibrated aesthetic matches the all-beige ensemble Lau wears when she and Cho meet in a road-rage incident, triggering a feud that will eventually degenerate into an accidental kidnapping, shootout and survival situation in the desert.

An Asian woman wearing glasses and matching beige outfit and bedset, smiling
Beef, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Andrew Cooper / Netflix

To Asian Americans, Cho and Lau might represent two poles on a spectrum of nightmare stereotypes. Lau, on the one hand, with her phony woke-ness, monetizing her ethnicity for a white audience; and Danny, on the other, living in a time warp, papering over his psychic wounds with a thin veneer of masculinity and endless, hopeless, schemes for ‘getting out’ of the trap he feels himself to live in. But Beef is not so interested in critique and redemption. Instead the series quickly establishes its intention, the portrayal of Asian American life through a parade of endless stereotype: Naomi (Ashley Park), the wealthy, white-washed Asian woman with perfect highlights whose competition with Amy stems from jealousy of the approval she receives from Naomi’s white billionaire sister-in-law Jordan; Danny’s cousin Isaac (David Choe), whose facial hair, style, and appropriation of African American vernacular represents the more ‘street’ Asian American male; and the good church Asians of Edwin (Justin H. Min) and his wife Veronica (Alyssa Gihee Kim). There is a lack of pointedness to the ways these stereotypes are all presented. Whether located inside Danny and Paul’s beat-up apartment, Amy’s stylish home, or Jordan’s ridiculous compound, the camera seems saturated in a matte haze in earthy tones, inducing a kind of general dulling sensation that evokes the boundless, burning suppressed rage of the show’s two principal characters. Echoing the California desert, or the nostalgic remove of a soundtrack that includes 2000s alt-pop songs like Hoobastank’s ‘The Reason’, Beef has its fun with the stereotypes but seems to yawn at it all.  

Two Korean men, one clean-cut but in sweats, the other suspicious-looking with long hair, with their arms around each other
Beef, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Andrew Cooper / Netflix

Toward the beginning of the series, Amy’s daughter June asks her what to do after a bad dream.  She answers: ‘I would think of a happy time.’ That ‘happy time’ for Amy is the night in the hospital after June was born: ‘no meetings, no emails, no pretending, just you and me.’ This speech is a precursor to the conversation Danny and Amy have in the final episode when they are fading, both injured and delusional in the desert due to food poisoning from berries Amy misidentifies, despite having created a company around plants: ‘You don’t have to hide, it’s okay.’ But what does it even mean to hide for Amy and Danny? Their existence is so fractured that they hardly know themselves, nor can they fully access each other. They wield surface knowledge of the historical antipathy between their countries of heritage, without much knowledge or conviction: ‘[Danny] seemed offended that you were Japanese’, Amy tells George, solely to get him on her side of the conflict. At one point, hallucinating, they seem to each speak to themselves through the voice of the other.

A white woman with her hand on a green chair in an art exhibition of chairs
Beef, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Andrew Cooper / Netflix

Indeed, like these characters’ unknowing operation of the forces that propel them, such as the source of each of their anger, the most interesting thing about ‘Beef’ may be the metanarratives that undergird and even puppeteer their actions and the chaotic, increasingly fantastical plot. A spectre that proverbially haunts the show is George’s artist father, a famed chair designer whose design is a thinly veiled rip-off of Danish architect Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair (1958), literally named the ‘Tamago’, the Japanese word for ‘egg’. (As if to cement the farce, the seat of this chair is modeled from George’s mother’s behind.) George’s ceramic pieces, in turn, seem like a rip-off of a rip-off: their biomorphic forms twist and fold uncomfortably into each other, and are glazed with a speckled and lumpy surface texture. It is fitting that Danny’s cynically motivated praise for George’s boring ceramic pieces are an effective means of ingratiation. Though the show positions art as vacuous – the ‘65 chair’ exhibition where the Tamago chair is first shown looks like a Design Within Reach showroom – the eerie, slow pans around George’s sculptures, and the continual resurfacing of the Tamago chair, including it being the object to seal the selling of Amy’s business to Jordan, suggests that it is a crucial framework for understanding the machinations of the show. 

Two Asians, one male and the other female, talking in front of a hanging piece of ceramic art
Beef, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Andrew Cooper / Netflix

The convergence of high art, cultural clout and capital forms a point about which the characters of Beef rotate in unhappy orbit. It also evokes an unmistakeable connection between the show and the personal life of its creator Ali Wong, whose ex-husband Justin Hakuta is the nephew of the legendary video artist Nam June Paik. (His father is the executor of Paik’s estate). Both Wong and her character Amy come from more modest background than their partners yet have enjoyed greater professional success. Beef is a drama built on couples and counterparts: Amy and Danny; Amy and George; Danny and Paul; Amy and Jordan; Danny and Isaac; even Danny and George. Each marks the other with their ambition, anger and resentment, and draws the same feelings from them. These doublings are mirrored in the double entendre of the show’s title, a reference to its central, comically-overblown feud, but also to the pressures which subject all of us, whether Asian, white, rich or poor, to the wheels of a relentless capitalistic machine that dims our life force and grinds us into meat.

Main image: Beef, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Andrew Cooper / Netflix

Diana Seo Hyung Lee is a writer and translator born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in Queens, New York. Her writing explores opacities or obscurities between language and memory and has appeared in publications including Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, and Momus, among others.