Review
Culture
Film and TV
6 min read

Wealth is worth? Questioning the immigrant experience

Garnering yet more awards, TV series Beef expertly explores identities. Krish Kandiah revisits the K-wave drama.

Krish Kandiah is a social entrepreneur building partnerships across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He is the founder of The Sanctuary Foundation.

in a dim room a couple stand off against each other.
Steven Yeun and Ali Wong play Daniel and Amy.

Not since the ground-breaking series Breaking Bad can I remember such a captivating opening sequence.  A road rage incident escalates. And escalates. And escalates. Just when you think things can’t get any worse in this dark Netflix comedy, the vicious consequences of the feud unravels further. I couldn’t stop watching, and soon Beef had me firmly dragged into the world of two protagonists, who may have had very different experiences of the Korean American dream but were more alike than they would ever dare to admit.  

I am a huge fan of the global Korean cultural renaissance known as the K-wave. For me it started with Psy, the breakout Korean singing superstar hitting number one in the UK charts with Gangnam Style in 2012. Then there was BTS, the Korean Take That equivalent, who duetted with Coldplay and became the best-selling band in the world. Parasite was a remarkable movie, that grabbed multiple awards at the Academy Awards of 2020.  Squid Game took the concepts of battle royale and Hunger Games to a whole new level and became a Netflix number one global download hit in 2021. Throughout the K-wave decade I have also been an ardent devotee of Samsung, the biggest brand in mobile phone innovation.  

Something important is happening with the global recognition of Korean culture. Beef represents another step forward showcasing the Korean diaspora cultural ascendence. At this year’s Emmy Awards it is the third most nominations.  It follows on from the Canadian comedy series Mr Kim, which offered an affectionate and amusing exploration of the experience of a second-generation Korean family coming to terms with life in Toronto. Beef similarly presents the US-Korean cultural experience without explanation or apology. It is powerfully assumed that this is legitimate and normal. There is no embarrassment, no exposition: just a cultural and narrative world that the viewer has to catch up with as soon as possible before they miss something.  

Beef is Korean and American. It is a comedy and a tragedy. It is also, ultimately, a morality and immorality play. It explores three main issues: anger, identity and aspiration and how they interact with one another – for good and for evil.  

But the rage runs deep. It is toxic to everyone it touches. What can break its power? 

The instigating event in the show is a road rage incident between Daniel, a second-generation Korean immigrant to the US whose family faced financial ruin when a relative used their motel for illegal activity, and Amy, also a second-generation Korean immigrant, who is on the cusp of banking a multi-million dollar deal. Everything Daniel attempts he fails at. He can’t even manage to successfully end his own life, or even return the faulty suicide equipment to the hardware store he bought it from.  Amy, despite outward appearances is also struggling. She is estranged from her parents, stuck in a superficial relationship with her husband, and dealing with a demanding and dismissive mother-in-law and a daughter she hardly sees. The near miss in the car park comes at a pivotal moment for both of these strangers and flips a switch in them that they cannot let go.  

The feud escalates between Amy and Daniel with increasingly high stakes and terrible consequences. The more we get to know about our two protagonists the more we understand why they have reacted in the extreme ways they have and how much they both have to lose. I found myself watching through my fingers as I was invested in the characters and was longing for some kind of forgiveness, repentance or reconciliation. At some points faith seemed tantalisingly close to providing an antidote to the beef, holding out hope even in the very last episode.  At other points it seemed that love would find a way to stop the tide of anger and revenge. But the rage runs deep. It is toxic to everyone it touches. What can break its power?  

If the church were to face up to its own identity issues, perhaps it could be of more help to individuals who brush shoulders with it. 

The more we are drawn into the lives of Amy and Daniel, the more we realise that they are both wrestling with major issues of identity. Daniel is seemingly willing to go to any lengths to win the approval of his parents while also clinging so tightly to his brother that he stifles him. Amy too wrestles with a series of strained relationships. Both are lonely, feel unseen and misunderstood. They both carry dark secrets. They both are crippled by feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Amy’s sexual intimacy is inhibited by the sense of betrayal that was caused by her father’s infidelity. Daniel’s work quality is compromised because of the weight of despair and shame. While they both present to the world as successful and strong, inside they experience anxiety, purposelessness and anger. 

Beef therefore provides a powerful exploration of identity issues. Male and female, rich and poor, married and single - no-one is exempt from the struggles of knowing who we are and where we fit in. There are moments in the series where the church looks like it has the answer. Going to church is normalised in the show as part of the Korean experience, which appears to be a culturally confident move. But the church is shown to be struggling with its own identity crisis. It accurately portrays the experience of ethnic-specific churches in the West. Yet despite being made up of diaspora communities, more often than not their liturgies, governance structures and forms and language of worship, are based on white western norms. The Korean cultural renaissance has not worked its way into our expression of faith yet. If the church were to face up to its own identity issues, perhaps it could be of more help to individuals who brush shoulders with it.  

Beef offers a challenge to the prevailing aspirational culture often normalised by immigrant communities – if you work hard enough you can succeed. 

What Dan and Amy have in common is their belief that value or worth in the world comes through the amount of money they have access to. They both graft and strive and lie and steal in order to gain the economic success their parents failed to achieve. Their competitiveness at work spills over into a drive to win at all costs. Riches is righteousness. Financial security is salvation. Wealth is worth. Annihilating the competition is victory. Yet the wealthy people in the show all come to realise the truth of what Jesus taught: “what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”  

Daniel is clearly faced with this choice right at the beginning of the series. He is at church when the words of a song seem to move him:  

“Have you come to the end of yourself?

Jesus is calling. 

Come to the Altar…” 

This opportunity for a new start is juxtaposed with another. Daniel notices a possibility of ripping the church off financially, luring an ex-girlfriend back and replacing the worship leader. The church becomes the place where he can renounce or receive money, sex and power. He chooses the latter – to his own ultimate downfall.  

As a second-generation immigrant, I was told that if I did well at school and set my sights on becoming a doctor or lawyer, then I could earn my place in the world. Qualifications could silence the xenophobes, money could buy me relationships and success could secure my future.  Beef offers a challenge to this prevailing aspirational culture so often normalised by immigrant communities – if you work hard enough you can succeed. My Christian faith has changed that perspective for me. It showed me that financial gain was mono-dimensional, that chasing fool’s gold was a fool’s errand. Beef comes to the same conclusion, albeit with stronger language and adult themes. It takes a swipe at the hard- and cold-hearted calculus of personal aspiration, challenges consumptive materialism on its hollowed-out version of life and leaves it in the middle of nowhere to die.   

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.