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.