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REVIEW: The delicious and dangerous delights of Netflix’s ‘Beef’

Jason Tan Liwag

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REVIEW: The delicious and dangerous delights of Netflix’s ‘Beef’
Buoyed by stellar performances from Yeun and Wong, Lee Sung Jin’s 'Beef' is a delicious ten-episode series that examines the tensions of living up to the myth of the model minority

We’ve all been there, right? It’s a terrible day and something small turns a mere annoyance into a source of blinding rage. In Beef, Lee Sung Jin’s ten-episode, straight-to-series tragicomedy on Netflix produced in part by A24, a parking lot run-in pushes contractor Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) over the edge, transforming an almost-car accident into a high-octane chase across a suburban Calabasas neighborhood. When payback slips through his fingers, he memorizes the white Mercedes’ plate number, in the hopes of exacting revenge someday.

When he uses the license plate to track down the assailant, he discovers that it’s not just some random asshole, but a Vietnamese mother and plant store mogul named Amy Lau (Ali Wong). Amy’s picturesque life — including a stunningly designed home inspired by Wong’s own — pisses Danny off so much that he’s willing to do anything to ruin her. But when Amy catches onto his antics and decides to fire back, they begin an unending cycle of vexing and vengeance, one that doesn’t just obliterate each other, but also their loved ones.

Such an image of all-consuming Asian rage is a rarity for American television. Much like in real life, Asian-American characters are under the stranglehold of the model minority myth, and media has responded to this by either upholding the family-friendly attempts at assimilation (i.e. Fresh Off The Boat) or illustrating how utterly vapid Asians can also be (i.e. the brainrot-inducing Bling Empire). But Beef challenges these notions by positing an alternative to the status quo: in a world that puts a premium on positivity and perfection, is there space for rage and dissatisfaction? 

Family offers no respite. Danny’s younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) does not share his drive to create a better life, preferring to passively acquire income through cryptocurrency while playing video games and getting girls. Meanwhile, Amy’s husband George (Joseph Lee) constantly neglects her emotional needs and burdens her with not only financing his overbearing mother Fumi (Pati Yasutake) but also his mediocre attempts replicating his father’s artistic success. The need to please the people in their lives is both a boon and a bane to Amy and Danny’s existence, and their personal needs, desires, and feelings are repressed — partly because of their upbringing, partly because of the nature of their work — until it bursts like a balloon.

Though Amy and Danny come from different socioeconomic classes, they struggle with similar anxieties around class instability in modern America. Danny doesn’t know that Amy is a self-made businesswoman who is on the verge of a deal that will finally allow her to spend time with her daughter June (Remy Holt). On the other hand, Amy doesn’t know that Danny is saving up to allow his parents to move back to the US, desperate to make it up to them after they lose their motel due to his shady cousin Isaac (David Choe), with whom Danny is still in contact. 

It doesn’t help that their jobs force them to take shit from the worst people — for Danny, it’s his low-paying, ever-demanding white suburban clients; for Amy, it’s billionaire Jordan Forster (Maria Bello), who quietly manipulates her into submission by using the deal as leverage. In chasing after the idyllic and aspirational dreams of Asian-Americans, Beef crystallizes how late capitalism has embedded itself into the fabric of our lives, conflating our labor with the personal, the mistakes in private becoming the specters that haunt us as we roam in public.

Vulture’s Roxana Hadadi has astutely noted these themes before, writing that “Beef has a specific interest in the gap between our public and private selves, and that tension reveals Amy and Danny as self-destructive mirrors.” How can one remain sane in such a world? Amy and Danny have to smile their way through the work. But when the opportunity presents itself, they take their frustrations out on each other like a pair of toddlers on a playground, their delightful pettiness a momentary outlet for what they cannot solve in their personal lives.

The last time Wong and Yeun were together in such a delicate and confusing dance was in Tuca & Bertie, an animated sitcom where they play anthropomorphic birds Bertie and Speckle, respectively, who are navigating a romance. Lee wrote two episodes of the show’s first season — The Deli Guy and The New Bird — and these similarly touch on the difficulties of living up to one’s identity, sexual negotiations, lifelong dissatisfaction, and the ways traumas persist until the present and inform how we navigate the world.

Each episode launches Beef into newer, more panic-inducing heights, as the two refuse to let grudges go, hoping that they get their dues somehow, inadvertently drawing themselves further away from their goals. The series uses a mix-tape of ‘90s and early 2000s jams — from Hoobastank’s “The Reason” to Incubus’ “Drive” to The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mayonnaise” — to make palpable the juvenile comforts and the angsty nature of their world. When the chaos settles, what surfaces is Amy and Danny’s brokenness and how the complexities of their unhappiness are tied to how their families use them as a mere means to an end, their lives only asymptotically bringing them closer to the American dream.

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This flagellation becomes the source of dark comedy, to the point of near-suffocating realism. Wong and Yeun buoy the show by balancing cartoonish outbursts with moments of emotion that ground the material — from Yeun’s sudden tearfulness in church reminiscent of Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine, to Wong’s repetitive attempts at articulating her unhappiness with her husband, the subjects of which have glaring similarities to her own life, as revealed in her stand-up comedy special Don Wong.

Lee complicates Amy and Danny’s relationship further by making their interactions teeter on the sexual, each act of chaos seemingly a covert attempt at continuing and intensifying the ongoing flirtation. Beef’s most indelible images reflect this undercurrent of sexual frustration and the freedom in abandoning pleasantries and sinking your teeth into the taboo. Towards the end of the first episode, Amy becomes preoccupied with the contents of a safe, which her husband has kept from her by changing the code. Betrayal! But when Amy manages to open it and pulls out a gun, George seems justified in his trepidation. 

At first, she admires it and loads it with a round of bullets, seemingly imagining a way to use it on Danny, implying how this part of her has been locked away since becoming a mother. But then the unexpected happens: she begins pressing the cold metal against her breast, then her neck, then her lips, pulling the trigger while the safety is on, gentle moans escaping her mouth as she brings it lower.

When Danny’s arrival interrupts her reverie, she quickly uses the gun to threaten him from the other side of the door. These tonal changes — from dark and cutting to hilarious and sexy at a moment’s notice — are easily the most jarring thing about Beef, but these underscore the tightrope Asian-Americans must balance to navigate the world and maintain whatever power they have. Lee is careful to not reduce Amy and Danny into villainry, presenting each character’s interiority in its rawest, most primal form. In doing so, the truth of their shared experiences come to the fore.

Is it possible not to be consumed by our desires and hungers? To not be singed by our fears? To not bankrupt ourselves and our loved ones in our pursuit of stability? In Beef, it seems that there is satisfaction in self-annihilation. – Rappler.com

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.