Coping With ‘Beef’ and Its Offscreen Violences
TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses rape, sexual assault, complicity, silence, and other forms of violence in frank and unflinching terms.
In the hit Netflix series Beef, Amy Lau (Ali Wong) and Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) are fed up with their respective personal and professional frustrations, which teeter into violence during a road-rage incident between them. Refreshing for its centering of the Korean-American community of Los Angeles, and debuting just months after Asian actors and filmmakers had a historic run at the 2023 Oscars, Beef was on track for unparalleled success — but not just on the strength of its diversity both in front of and behind the camera. Beef stood on the merits of its masterful, artful storytelling. But after four episodes, I’m out — resigned to never witness the evolution of Amy’s and Danny’s respective and shared crises — because the violence of Beef leaped from my television screen, penetrated my psyche, and infused it with swirling feelings of violation, horror, and anger.
Beef forced art-loving viewers to engage with works potentially unfamiliar to them, and it nudged the uninitiated into taking notice. Show creator Lee Sung Jin accomplished this by slamming an art piece into the viewer’s face at the start of each episode and using it as the title card background. As a lover of art, who also has a side hustle as a painter and collagist, the images piqued my interest and I vowed to look up the artist after the show. Like others, I Googled the words Beef and “art,” and was delivered to a rash of articles about the “rapey” behavior of costar David Choe, who inhabits the role of Isaac Cho, the criminal-minded cousin of Danny.
Article after article detailed the 2014 podcast episode in which Choe admitted to, and bragged about, forcing a young masseuse to have sex with him, despite her repeated objections. Asa Akira, an adult film actress and cohost of the podcast, confronted Choe, albeit jokingly, about raping the masseuse he called “Rose.”
In his own words, Choe described actions that happened after Rose said “no,” bragging:
“I take the back of her head and I push it down … and she doesn’t do it. And I say ‘Open your mouth, open your mouth’ …”
The speaker of these words, Choe, created the art in Beef.
Netflix and A24, the production company behind Beef, sparked our collective imagination. They achieved this by shoving Choe’s paintings into our faces — close, screen-spanning, inescapable. The striking, sensory onslaught is effective. If Netflix’s and A24’s mission was to captivate the viewer so thoroughly that they might venture into a quest to learn more about the show’s art, it was accomplished– in now-infamous style.
If viewers were disappointed after leaping from blissful, artistic intrigue into a quagmire of moral turpitude, they would have been rightful in their sentiments. For people, like myself, who have lived to see the other side of sexual assault, controversy over Beef triggers flashbacks and flash floods of survival hormones. It throws one off-kilter, forcing unexpected immersion in the waters of one’s scariest waking nightmares.
The sense of violation tipped into horror show terrain after learning that Choe was cast through nepotistic means.
Choe, a successful graffiti artist who was paid in stock for his murals on Facebook’s company walls, is friends with Wong and Yeun, who used their power–not to help elevate an Asian-American artist in need of a break, but to center Choe’s art as Beef’s biggest star. His gruff and aggressive portrayal of cousin Isaac leaves much to be desired and spills outside of the show’s already boundary-pushing limits.
Choe’s actions are bad enough on their own. But to discover his connection with the show’s stars amounts to granules of proverbial salt pulverizing pinkish, raw tissue as it grinds toward bone. The fallout from Choe’s remarks forced a marginal backlash in which the artist issued a poor excuse for an apology based on denying the claims that passed through his own mouth.
Make no mistake: If what Choe described really happened, justice would be served if his own words counted as a confession to criminal charges against him. But if Choe did, indeed, invent the story as he later claimed, the condemnation of his doings should be considered equally damaging. If Choe did not assault a masseuse named Rose but conjured the story for shock value, or to boost his own fragile masculinity, there should be no lenience.
His actions caused harm to victims of sexual violence who were triggered by his graphic and grandiose descriptions of potentially ruining a young woman’s life.
In 2017, vandals destroyed one of Choe’s murals in an act of apparent displeasure over his continued public presence and sorry handling of the situation three years prior. Now, the issue has bubbled up from the cloisters of the LA art community, from the city’s Korean-American enclaves. Now, the world knows that nepotism powered the deals that brought the brutish Isaac, and Choe’s paintings, to the cultural forefront.
[BuzzFeed: ‘Beef’ didn’t need David Choe anyway]
Fans of the show, whether or not they watched all 10 episodes, are left in states of bafflement over Wong’s and Yeun’s choice to force their buddy onto the American public. It is hard to imagine that neither they nor Beef creator Jin, Netflix, or A24 were ignorant of Choe’s past crimes (a word used intentionally here because of his prior self-references to being a criminal).
How could anyone on the show not be aware of this incident? What would inspire them to settle on Choe for the role of “Isaac” rather than cast a wide net through which to capture a talented, unknown Asian actor who might have or could learn the character’s chops.
If the aim of “Beef” was a twisted social experiment on the topic of violent humans in possession of artistic gifts, all who contributed to its dissemination should pat themselves on the back and clink glasses to a job well-done. If, however, “Beef,” merely sought to center art and the art world’s shortcomings, it could have done so with the works of emerging Asian artists, women even, whose works also rivet and sear.
Immediately coming to mind are Catalina Ouyang, whose sculptures provoke with sharp edges and art-history context, and Susan Chen, whose lush paintings of the Asian diaspora in New York ooze sticky social commentary that belies locale. Chen’s “#StopAsianHate” (2021) depicts, on one of several signs held by its oil-painted protestors, the words Silence Is Violence in lavish cursive script.
Silence is violence, which is why the tight-lipped response from everyone involved with Beef is inexcusable; it is also the crux of my anger.
Their silence, beyond the scope of Choe’s heinous actions, are a cynical insult to the intelligence of viewers, art lovers, creative communities of color, and sexual assault survivors. Beef had the easiest public-relations cleanup job ever, but chose–instead of completing it–to evade the assignment. They chose silence over decency — complicity over addressing a public outcry.
As a Black woman, wounds of abrasion are commonplace —the sores arising from being relentlessly scoured achingly familiar. When silence is dealt with by one’s own community, or by those purported to be allies, though, it has an eviscerating effect. I remain queasy over Choe’s words in that podcast episode, his cowardly use of copyright law to halt the circulation of the associated video, and especially the code of silence from everyone involved in Beef.
Wong, Yeun, Jin, Netflix, and A24 made their choice, and I’m making mine: to skip the final six episodes of Beef, with wishes that I could take back the time I invested in the first four.