Directed by: Hikari, Lee Sung Jin, and Jake Schreier
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Alexander Reams
There is a moment in episode three of “Beef” where Steven Yeun’s Danny Cho is at church. The shot starts from the back of the sanctuary and moves forwards as Cho gets more comfortable at this Korean Evangelical church, he allows himself to be swept up in the music and the energy of everyone in the room and eventually breaks down. But not before director Jake Schreier allows the viewer to get caught up in it as well, he lets the music being played echo throughout the frame until the first tear leaves Yeun’s eye. It falls with a gravity that feels like he lost 20 pounds, he sheds his worries and comes weak, weary, and heavy-laden to a place that asks only that. This is a moment that I’ve experienced before which allows more truths about this series to be revealed that, on the surface, looks like it’s mean-spirited, a show that looks for the worst in its characters. However, beneath that it’s more kind, “Beef” is ultimately about grace, mercy, and how to let go in a world that demonizes you if you do.
Let’s wind back the clocks. Lee Sung Jin’s ideas for “Beef” have clearly been a part of him for a long time and are felt through the way everyone interacts. The first is Danny Cho, a contractor who is trying to kill himself because he sees no way out of his troubles, debt, and stress from his parents (generational trauma!). When he nearly backs into Ali Wong’s Amy Lau in a parking lot, he loses it. They both yell and honk, eventually, Lau leaves, but Cho quickly follows. Hikari is the director of episode one and captures the car chase brilliantly but never forgets the emotions Jin has put into these characters, the hatred, and stress have eaten these two to the point of Cho maneuvering through strangers’ yards just to continue the chase. It’s active television and a great way to start the show. The interactions between Cho and Lau are expertly written and they walk the line of sadistic and sympathetic wonderfully, Cho urinates in her bathroom, and Lau writes defamatory reviews of his business on Yelp.
However, for every retaliation, we see another crack in their lives. Lau begins catfishing Cho’s brother Paul (Young Mazino) which complicates her marriage to George (Joseph Lee), and her relationship with her daughter June (Remy Holt). While Cho starts to launder money through the church he attends after he experiences a spiritual moment during episode three. Throughout “Beef” the nightmarish situations Lau and Cho find themselves in only worsen, with a finale so surreal it could’ve been directed by David Lynch and I would’ve believed you. When it comes time for the finale in the desert several things have happened, Paul is assumed dead, after Danny heard shots fired and a body fall. Just after he escaped the house of Amy’s boss while Isaac (David Choe) robbed the house after Danny screwed him over. It sounds like a lot, but it never overwhelms the viewer, there are constant allowances for breaths to be taken, tensions to lower, and the fights to stutter before they eventually continue.
The beauty of “Beef” is in its ugliness, the dirtiness that Lau and Cho find themselves in after chaos has uprooted their lives. The option of staying in the desert might be best for both of them, and their time is lovely. To see Wong and Yeun verbally spar (then physically) is a joy, and the tension between them resolves into an idea so obvious that it feels fresh, under the anger is love. Their discovery of these emotions towards each other might feel out of left field for some viewers, but it makes sense to have these two people who hate each other see that they are perfect, they had to be near death, but they finally see it. This segues into one of the finest final scenes in television history, simple but so effective in its angle-down shot, which shows Yeun in bed after he sustains serious injuries at their rescue from the desert. Eventually, Wong climbs into his bed, lies next to him, and Jin sits there until the credits roll, one final breath before this story ends.