‘Beef’ review: A darkly humorous exploration of road-rage-fuelled feud, repressed grief

Beef captures the existential angst that we carry within ourselves, burdened by the seemingly eternal mundaneness of our being.

Ali Wong and Steven Yeun in Netflix show Beef

It’s not often that you have a show that is so difficult to categorize: Beef, an A24 production created by Lee Sung Jin, and starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun in primary roles, is neither a full-blown comedy, nor is it an archetypal drama.

It is neither thriller enough, nor is it a tragedy. The dark existential montage of what repressed grief and anger does to a person, it is a little bit of everything and nothing at the same time.

What begins as a road-rage dispute between Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a successful botanical entrepreneur, and Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a struggling contractor, spirals into a full-fledged feud, where neither Amy nor Danny wish to give up.

In their endless spree of petty grievances, these two thirty-something Asians, whose worlds would never have collided otherwise, become entangled in a quest to release the frustration they both mask in their daily lives.

A classic case of road rage

Consider Danny, a hardworking labourer, whose parents have shifted back to Korea, because his cousin Isaac (David Choe) lost the motel they owned due to some criminal activities.

Left alone, Danny must strive to make ends meet, bring his parents back to the US, and pursue the American Dream that has never seemed so impossible — all this while, his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) recklessly dabbles in cryptocurrency trading.

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Now, consider Amy: she is rich, successful, and worlds apart from Danny with her bougie art galleries, and multimillion-dollar deals, but she is also a half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese working mother to a daughter who suffers from anxiety.

She is also a wife to a Zen, pottery-making husband who can’t see the boiling rage simmering underneath her, because he lives a comfortable life that Amy provides and, therefore, she herself can’t enjoy since she is always hustling.

Beef-Ali Wong
Ali Wong plays Amy Lau, a successful botanical entrepreneur.

So when they both find themselves in Forster’s Parking Lot, an improvement store, with their patience reaching its limits, an altercation breaks out. He is reversing, she is rushing out, she honks, he honks back, she puts up the middle finger and drives off, while he chases her down the roads of Southern California — it’s a classic case of road rage, where both parties curse each other, vandalizing city sidewalks, and throwing objects at each other.

An ode to anger

What is not classic is what follows after — neither of these two deeply embittered people choose to let go. They memorize each other’s license plate and swear to exact vengeance. From Danny urinating on Amy’s bathroom floor to the latter spray-painting Danny’s truck with insults, this war of terror escalates from pettiness to nasty torment.

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Beef, in many ways, captures the existential angst that we carry within ourselves, burdened by the seemingly eternal mundaneness of our being. It gives a platform to an emotion that has repeatedly been looked down upon, especially in pop-culture through a monolith lens. Not sadness, not grief, not fatigue, not frustration, but rage — a feeling created from the pressure of bearing the weight of all these other emotions.

When sorrow, despair and annoyance reach their maximum, anger is born, and Beef pays an ode to this emotion — the one stereotyped for blood-soaked villains and exploited heroes, who transform into angry young men set out to rid the world of its woes.

Yeun and Wong are the stars of the show, to put it simply and effectively. Not to overstate, but a show like Beef isn’t possible if you don’t have actors like Yeun and Wong to wield their craft with so much restraint and magnetism.

The reason the show works is because both Amy and Danny retain so much humanity while venturing out to do these wacky, horrifying things that they are able to create an intersection where the feeling of pain meets the desire to inflict that pain, in a grimly humane way. They tread competently on the thin line between being bad people, and being people who are making bad decisions.

Despite their terrorizing acts, the viewer can’t help but empathize with the dreams that the protagonists watch ardently, and how their unfulfillment leaves them devastated. If Yeun and Wong acted as revenge-driven sociopaths, then Beef would lose its point, but they don’t thankfully, making this dark comedy instilled with tension and morally questionable behaviours so delectable to watch.

Steven Yeun plays a hardworking labourer, Danny Cho, pursuing his American Dream

This is not to say that Beef, in any way, is a light entertaining binge-watch — it is not. Despite hilariously funny dialogues, the tension — both external and internal — gets to you, but when it is marinated with important themes like displacement, privilege, anxiety, generational trauma, race and colour, you’re inadvertently drawn to manic chaos that Beef pulsates with.

A portrait of us

No matter how demented Beef is, in reality it is a portrait of what you, I and everyone else would be if we weren’t held back by pragmatism, giving into our volatile selves, each time the ugly, capitalist world just got on our nerves, and the fuming rage and sorrow had no place to go. On the face of it, Beef looks like a wildly insane story that is hardly in touch with reality, but as you peel off the layers of absurdity, and peek into the human story at the heart of it, you see that it is perhaps as real as it can get.

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It is a story that takes you to edge of hopelessness only to bring you back from the ledge to tell you that this is not about two people who spiral and hit their rock bottom, but rather about two fragile human beings who let the darkness drive them, only to be able to fight their way back to the light.

Beef is sweepingly original, and appetizingly entertaining, even if it takes its own sweet time to get the hang of it. Word of caution: the beginning may come off as detached and impersonal, but the key to devouring this incredible Lee Sung Jin creation is to give it some time, and let it work its magic on you because good things take time.

This is one show that you’ll not regret watching: if not for entertainment then at least for the sake of experiencing something completely bona fide in the era of streaming, where every other show feels like something you’ve seen before.