Mortal in the City of Angels
Netflix, metaphysics, and evolving not to fall
By Wyatt Hong
I first saw the billboard for Beef on my way to work in April. It was of two opposing fists giving each other the middle finger, the fingers respectively dressed as Steven Yuen and Ali Wong. Despite the appetising red background, this wasn't a McDonald's but a Netflix ad. The white uppercase letters "BEEF", I guessed, referred to the protein-free definition: personal grievance, a score to settle.
Even after Crazy Rich Asians (2018), it was rare to see Asian representation on Sunset Boulevard. Yet this ad was taking three whole billboards, a triptych that joined into a panorama then broke into foreshortening panels as my Uber crossed from West Hollywood into Hollywood. Ali Wong I recognised as the stand-up comedian who once said: "Any man watching me, listening to what I have to say, and thinking to themselves, 'I want to fuck her ' is a raging psychopath and has extremely good taste." I knew Steven Yuen from his roles in Burning (2018) and Minari (2020). I hadn't thought much about his acting, other than his awkward Korean that got in its way. But I respected him immensely, as I respected every Korean who had successfully broken away from his parents' expectations as in hadn't become a doctor or, in the case of Ken Jeong, had become one then quit to flash his dick in Hangover (2009).
I, the model Korean son, was on my way to Children's Hospital Los Angeles for my afternoon shift. The I-10 was at a standstill due to a crash, and we were crawling along Sunset. The billboards lent little idea what Beef was about, but half an hour later, as my Uber paused by the side of a building across from the Netflix headquarters, turned into one gigantic ad for Beef, I thought: if they're spending this much money on it, then maybe I should watch it.
I finished all ten episodes in two days. Like every binge-worthy K-drama, the last of which I'd seen was the revenge-thriller The Glory (2022), the show left me speechless as I watched the ending credits roll, and I would've sat there in a daze listening to Smashing Pumpkins' "Mayonnaise" hadn't there been a cry from my daughter's room signalling the end of her nap. As I made my way across a wreckage of toys and a slaughterhouse of stuffed animals, made more forlorn by the blinding afternoon sun, I was unsure of the time, place and even self such is the disorienting power of great work.
"Chelsea," I said, as my own life rushed back into me. "Baby."
Beef is a story of two Asian Americans struggling to make it in Los Angeles: Danny Cho (played by Yuen), a failed Korean church boy turned handyman, and Amy Lau (played by Wong), the owner of a boutique houseplant store on the brink of selling her business for millions. The two hustle at different strata of social mobility in their respective neighbourhoods of East LA and Calabasas, until a road rage incident entangles them in a cycle of petty revenge, which quickly escalates into a life-and-death battle engulfing their families.
Apart from the flawless acting, the gut-punch humour, and the soundtrack that walked me down memory lane, there were reasons I found Beef intensely relatable. For a start, the entire cast was Asian American. Having lived in the States for more than half my life, I felt closer to these characters than the chaebols and cinderellas of K-drama. The show was filmed on the very streets I now call home. I was a regular at the ox-bone soup restaurant where Danny meets Isaac, shopped at the Korean grocery market across the nightclub where Amy tags Danny's truck.
But more than anything else, I related to the characters as a fellow hustler. I, too, hung on the ladder of social mobility like Mario on a wire stage infested by Koopa Troopas, each adversity sending a thrill through my hand as when the ball meets the bat in the batting cage. With the added weight of my daughter, my grip had become tighter around the rope. I saw many above me, many below. We were all hanging in there. After all, we were primates. We had evolved not to fall.
Beef, in essence, is a story of the American Dream. This nebulous term in one form or another describes the belief that one can achieve social mobility through hard work. The dream has always loomed larger for immigrant, minority communities, for many of whom the only direction was up and for whom there was added motivation, like the shocks from an electrified cage, from the slaps of racism. It must have been evident to many that, while money cannot eliminate racism, it can soften its blows, reduce its incessant roar into street noise heard from the interior of a Maybach, and further, to a select few, that race is a social construct, a product of the race rather than a fixed parameter, and that one can change one's race by winning the race, evidenced by the fact that Jewish Americans are now white. Which brings me to the one-liner by 50 Cent, "Get rich, or die trying", or a less eloquent version by Paul, Danny's younger brother and unemployed stud:
It is this dream that obsesses and overwhelms Danny and Amy; this dream for which they sacrifice friendship, marriage, and brotherhood; this dream from which they cannot wake. Beef is a story of the American Dream turned into a nightmare.
After nine episodes' worth of nonstop conning, sex, and armed robbery, the best kind that keeps you clicking "Next Episode" three hours past bedtime, the metaphorical road rage is crowned by Danny's stolen Hummer and Amy's G-Wagon rolling off a mountainside, and it is only in the last and tenth episode where, lost in a desert valley and dying from eating poisonous berries, the two finally awake from the dream.
The show takes a stage-like turn, a handgun the only prop between the two characters who finally recognise their commonality in their seeming inescapability from suffering and reciprocation of childhood trauma. The dialogue reminds one of Samuel Beckett:
A lesser show might have pushed an Aesopian moral, or presented a metaphysical panacea in the form of Christian altruism or Buddhist nonattachment. But the show gives a paradoxical, truer, and more human answer, best summarised by the quote in Episode 9 from Jordan Forster, the billionaire at the telescoping pinnacle of Amy and Danny's ladder:
That its evanescence, this business of writing on water, is what makes life "so wonderful"; that the very fact of everything fading should drive one towards the fading things such an answer is reminiscent of Camus's existentialist stance: to acknowledge the absurdity of our condition and yet to stay alive and, by staying alive, give the middle finger to whoever created the world.
Such a stance the gods may call it hubris does little to protect one from the horror of death. Without faith, life on earth is a lonely, short-lived act. Like all of us, Danny and Amy want to believe in something greater than themselves. In fact, the best acting in the series occurs during moments where they hover their feet over the edge of faith: Danny in Episode 3, when he breaks down in tears during a gospel at his ex-girlfriend's church, and Amy in Episode 7, when she asks her therapist whether she believes it's possible to love and, implicitly, to be loved unconditionally.
Yet neither takes the easy way out. Beef is modern in that its characters deny God until the end, where, like two wounded beasts, Danny and Amy lie on a clearing of dirt and twisted leaves, waiting for death.
My afternoon shifts at the Children's Hospital would end at 2am, and I often stared out of my Uber in a trance as Los Angeles flashed past like so many nations: the sudden rise of skyscrapers in downtown seen from Echo Park, the swarming signage of K-town, the pink neon of West Hollywood. My Uber drivers, odd-birds at such hours, spilled to me their life stories: a Chinese American ex-Marine who married a girl from Tijuana with five kids from other men, a former restaurant manager who tried to convince me to drop everything and go live in Medellin, a middle school maths teacher and son of Peruvian immigrants whose dream was to become doctor and to whose question "Why did you become a doctor?" I was too exhausted not to say "My parents wanted me to."
When I wanted to be left alone, I put on my AirPods and did something I had never done before. I listened to audiobooks. Reading books to my daughter had made me miss the feeling of being read to. I wanted something that wasn't too short but not too long either, something that could be read in a monotonous baritone as regular as the shadows of telephone poles on a train.
This is how I stumbled onto Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych, a truly depressing novella about Ivan, a man given to the "pleasure of ambition and vanity", who is seized by an incurable disease and reduced to a sick, helpless man in denial of death. In the punctuated darkness of Los Angeles at 2am, these lines lapped on my stupor like ripples at the edge of a moonlit lake.
My life, I saw, was not too different from Ivan's. All of us were grabbing what we could, until the day we could no longer. We were mortals in the city of angels.
Tolstoy later turned to Christianity. Not ten years had passed from his death in 1910 when the Russian Revolution began in a hysterical effort to establish heaven on earth, to correct the job God fucked up. The effort may be seen as a failure to all but the current leader of Russia. I know this because YouTube takes me to strange places. In a live interview prior to his 2013 meeting with Obama, Putin is asked if he thinks there are any fundamental ideological differences between the US and Russia. He says:
The brief clip gave me an insight into the man, who may as well see himself as the agent of The Maker. In practice, the difference between the two philosophies is of quantity, not quality: Putin is a man who swears by Jordan's motto, grabbing whatever he can, which is to say that a Calabasas home is the poor man's Ukraine.
Danny and Amy don't die. They wake up laughing in the sun, their conversation the night before turned to farce. Despite their loneliness and the incomprehensibility of the world, they wake up thirstier for life, glad to have another chance to grab what they can, so they can again be broken, gutted, and bared down to bone.
Because there's really nothing after this.
Beef, true to its title, is a visceral argument against metaphysics. It reminds us that we have decorated the slaughterhouse that is life in Hallmark paper, finding whose seams is a child's game to Death's long fingers, Death the undefeated champion in whose shadow we become equals and, sometimes, friends. As Danny's arm moves across Amy at the very last scene of the show, we witness and are moved by two wounded beasts embracing each other inside their cage. The only redemption Beef promises is that, however horrible life may be, nothing of it will last. Even the greatest tragedies will fade.
The day after I finish the show, I am back in the emergency room, churning through patients until I can afford a house like Amy's, though what I really want is to be a stay-at-home-dad like her husband George, working on my novel that, I promise my wife, will be the next Netflix hit.
"Will he feel it?" a boy's mom asks as I get ready to suture his forehead.
"He won't feel anything," I reassure her.
When the ketamine kicks in the kid's eyes go jittery, like marbles in a cup.
"Mom I'll ask you to step out briefly while we perform the procedure."
I let her kiss the boy, and have the nurse guide her out with the excuse that parents have fainted from watching. In the rhythmic beeping of the pulse oximeter, I calmly load my needle and wonder if it's true that he won't feel anything. Perhaps we feel everything under anaesthesia, and just don't remember it afterwards. I wonder if a thing can be said to have happened if no one remembers it, whether such a microscopic span of time as my life on an infinite arrow can be called existence.
I hold the bleeding edges together and pierce the skin with my needle.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023