A24’s Beef Challenges the Asian American Status Quo On-Screen

By: Maureen Linzaga
02/09/2024
en
Thumbnail courtesy of Ali Wong on Instagram.

May contain spoilers about A24’s Beef on Netflix.

The past decade has seen a significant emergence of Asian representation on screen from characters to directors who have all been paving the way to sharing stories of diaspora and culture. According to a collaborative study by the USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project and AAPI non-profit Gold House, the percentage of speaking characters who are Asian in top box-office films has risen almost five-fold, from 3.4% in 2007 to 15.9% in 2022.

In the ever-evolving landscape of Asian representation in film and TV, A24 stands out as a pioneer in challenging traditional narratives. Following the global success of Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), and Minari (2020), A24’s Netflix dark comedy series Beef (2023), inspired by a real-life road rage incident experienced by creator Lee Sung Jin, offers a fresh perspective on complex Asian stories. 

With eight Emmy and three Golden Globes wins, Beef explores themes of anger, unconventional realities, and more, contributing to the evolution of more opening opportunities for bold, multi-dimensional Asian characters in the future.

Breaking Stereotypes in Beef

Notable films that featured Asian leads that have hit Western audiences in the past decade include the romance-comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and the superhero Marvel film Shang-Chi (2021). Although both are wonderful productions, the films do however still perpetuate tropes such as the “model minority myth” and “martial arts fighter,” which can keep Asian representation at a stagnance.

As the story follows Steven Yeun’s character Danny Cho, a troubled working-class Asian American, and his desperate actions to make money for his family, his character fully dismantles the “model minority myth.” This trope in media often subjects Asians to a higher level of academic and career success akin to that of their Caucasian counterparts.

Working as a contractor for blue-collar jobs and taking to crime to earn money (on top of swearing like a sailor), Danny’s personality is also a refreshing contrast against how Asian men are symbolically annihilated and emasculated, seen as weak and undesirable in media.

On the other hand, Amy Lau, played by Ali Wong, although a more affluent Asian American character, deconstructs the “lotus blossom” narrative that merely depicts Asian women as quiet and passive. She often expresses blunt dialogues and is involved in messy, manipulative circumstances.

As both leads get caught up in a heated road rage incident, their strong personalities, along with the socio-economic diversity within the characters, fuel each other as they take on fresh roles and situations yet to be seen from Asians in media.

Race-Centered Storytelling

The USC study adds that another representation component in media includes the centrality of race or ethnicity to the plot and storylines. This is characterized by the nuanced ways the characters’ personalities are shaped by their culture, as their ethnic backgrounds play an important role in the plot and understanding of their motivations.

Instead of simply mentioning a character’s ethnicity a couple of times or being roles that any other race could have played (e.g. Lara Jean in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)), A24’s Beef features a story that directly intertwines with the characters’ ethnicities, and alienating such cultural factor would render the plot empty.

In Beef, Danny is motivated by financially recovering from his Korean migrant parents’ failed motel business that sent them back to Korea, along with buying his parents a new house in the U.S. These factors contributed to desperate decisions during his beef with Amy. On the other hand, Amy’s story portrays a more realistic experience of being a wife and addressing generational trauma from the lens of a Chinese child of immigrants who has seen her father cheat on her mother with a white woman.

“My mom, she wasn’t any better. She thought that talking about your feelings was the same thing as complaining.” – Ali Wong playing Amy Lau

In Danny’s life, the race-centered storytelling is elevated by geographical influences that affect his diasporic character. Halfway through the series, he seeks refuge in a church, experiencing an emotional breakdown during praise and worship. This portrayal reflects a realistic context for Korean Americans, particularly in California, where church and praise teams play a significant cultural role within Asian communities. This adds relatability to his character, showcasing vulnerability without succumbing to emasculating stereotypes.

Influencing Hard-Hitting Asian Narratives in Film and TV

Because of Beef’s unique, nuanced take on the Asian American experience, stories that both utilize and transcend Asian ethnicities have touched the hearts of global viewers and gained critically acclaimed recognition. As demonstrated by creator Lee Sung Jin’s vision, elevating Asian writers, directors, and individuals behind the camera ensures multi-dimensional characters that defy conventional, overplayed stories.

Initially, Danny and Amy seem to struggle with anger issues and project life’s challenges onto each other. Still, it becomes evident that their frustrations stem from cultural experiences and familial situations that constrain their emotional expression. The narrative skillfully explores their intricate lives, revealing the reasons behind their misplaced emotions.

As the industry evolves, embracing principles led by A24’s recent releases will pave the way for more powerful and unique Asian storytelling. By first prioritizing authenticity, creativity will inevitably follow, giving rise to a wave of exceptional films and TV shows that reflect diverse Asian experiences.

Interested in more stand-out AAPI stars from the 81st Golden Globes? Click here!