What it means to be Korean American is at the heart of ‘Beef’ creator and his work

Posted on : 2024-02-05 16:53 KST Modified on : 2024-02-05 16:53 KST
Lee Sung-jin and Steven Yeun sat down with Korean reporters for a virtual interview on Friday
Steven Yeun and Lee Sung-jin at the Emmys. (courtesy of Netflix)
Steven Yeun and Lee Sung-jin at the Emmys. (courtesy of Netflix)

“I’ve thought a lot about what it took to get here. It made me humble.” 

This is what Lee Sung-jin, the director and creator of the hit Netflix series “Beef,” said regarding his life after winning three Emmy Awards last month. Considering that he arrived in Los Angeles with little more than a dollar in his pocket, he said it was hard to believe. Joking that his life had become “incredibly exhausting,” Lee said that life since the Emmys has been different. 

Lee and actor Steven Yeun, who starred in the series, spoke with Korean reporters in a virtual interview on Friday from their respective corners of the world. They both expressed gratitude for “Beef” resonating with viewers around the world. 

Yeun expressed gratitude for his place in “a much more globally connected world where we can reach across so many barriers and connect with each other with a deep humanity,” while noting his appreciation for being able to be part of a project with themes like those in “Beef.”

In addition to the Emmys, “Beef” also swept up four Critics Choice Awards, making it a favorite of both critics and viewers. The black comedy’s creator attributed the broad popularity of the series to its focus on universal emotions. 

“What resonated the most for probably a lot of viewers is just seeing parts of themselves in the characters,” said Lee, who said he’d wanted to make a series that “highlights the honest and deep-seated darker emotions within us.”

Two characters meet in a road rage incident, but through that experience they come to recognize one another’s struggles and begin to feel a mutual connection, Lee said, noting that he had developed the show knowing that the starting point of “rage” and endpoint of “connection” was honest and authentic. 

The series depicts Danny Cho, a down-on-his-luck contractor of Korean descent, and Amy Lau, an affluent small business owner of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. The series paints a story of life as the descendants of Asian immigrants. 

The unconventional story piqued the interest of US mainstream society by delving deep into the jobs, lives, and rage harbored by immigrants, rather than pondering on issues surrounding identity.

Still from “Beef.” (courtesy of Netflix)
Still from “Beef.” (courtesy of Netflix)

“Immigrant reality is something that I know firsthand and then got to collaborate with Sung-jin about,” said Yeun. The Korean American actor said that he didn’t model the character off one particular individual, but talked with people around him about the immigrant life as they know it. Yeun said his portrayal of Danny was an amalgamation of the through lines of experiences that many descendants of immigrants in America had been through, collected through such conversations. 
Lee shared that he had initially used the pen name “Sonny” since getting his start in show business, but started using his Korean name after director Bong Joon-ho won an Academy Award in 2019.
While he used an English name as he thought that immigrants would be given fewer opportunities, in the course of a few years, he said the world started looking at Asians in a different light.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” said Yeun. “That convoluted path helped me see who I was as a person. There were times I felt outraged and angry that certain opportunities weren’t given to me, but I’m ultimately thankful for having been able to experience all that.”
He said that if he could go back and give his younger self any advice it would be to “just relax” and that “it’s going to be OK.”
Can viewers expect more works like “Beef” from Lee?

“Themes of what it means to be Korean American in the US are very important to me and deeply underpin who I am,” the writer said, noting that such themes will continue to appear in his future works, and in films that he hopes to make.

By Nam Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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