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‘Beef’ paves way for Korean immigrant stories in mainstream media

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Netflix’s original series “Beef,” created by a team of Korean-American director and actors, received significant attention at the 75th Emmy Awards. This marked the first time a drama focused on the lives of Korean immigrants has been recognized on a mainstream platform.

At the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards, held at the Peacock Theater in Los Angeles on January 15, “Beef” triumphed, winning eight awards, including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series. Korean-American director Sungjin Lee received accolades for his direction and writing. Korean-American actor Steven Yeun was celebrated as the best actor, while Chinese-Vietnamese actress Ali Wong garnered the award for best actress. The series also received honors in casting, costume, and editing, securing eight out of the 11 categories it was nominated for, the exceptions being supporting actor and actress and music.

Sungjin Lee accepts the Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series award for “Beef” at the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, on January 15, 2024. [Reuters]

The cast of “Beef,” including the director, comprises primarily first- or second-generation Korean-American immigrants, adding authenticity to the depiction of their struggles. Director Sungjin Lee, born in South Korea and relocated to the U.S. as a child, currently resides in Los Angeles. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned how “Beef”‘s main character, Danny, embodies his personal experiences, including his journey to LA with only minus 63 cents in his bank account to pursue a directing career.

Steven Yeun, 41, the winner for Outstanding Lead Actor, was born in Seoul and immigrated to Canada when he was five, eventually moving to Los Angeles in 2009. He is known for his roles in “The Walking Dead,” “Okja,” “Burning,” and “Minari.” Justin Min, portraying Edwin, a Korean-American church worship leader, hails from Cerritos, California, and is a Cornell University alumnus. Ashley Park, playing Naomi, is a rising Korean-American actress in Hollywood, notable for her role in Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” which earned her a Critics Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Ashley grew up in Glendale, California, and later moved to Michigan, where she studied musical theater at the University of Michigan. David Choi, portraying Isaac, is from LA’s Koreatown. Joseph Lee, playing Amy’s incompetent husband, was born in Arizona and moved to LA in the early 2010s.

“Beef” had previously won three awards at the 81st Golden Globe Awards on January 7 and four at the 29th Critics’ Choice Awards on January 14, setting high expectations for the Emmys. The series’ focus on Korean immigrants and its success in winning eight Emmys, a prestigious broadcasting award, was a notable achievement.

Korean-American actors from ‘Beef,’ a winner of eight Emmy Awards at the 75th Annual Emmy Awards, include (from left) Ashley Park, Justin Min, Joseph Lee, Andie Ju, David Choe, and Steven Yeun. [Social media, Reuters]

In recent years, stories about Korean immigrants have gained international acclaim and awards. Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” earned Yuh-jung Youn the 2021 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Apple TV+’s “Pachinko” won Best Foreign Language Drama at the 28th Critics’ Choice Awards last year. However, these works were often viewed as non-mainstream. In contrast, “Beef”‘s eight Emmy awards signify a shift, indicating that content about the Korean diaspora is now part of the mainstream narrative.

Reflecting on the past few years, the consistent interest in immigrant stories is evident. “Minari,” with its 2021 Oscar win, “Nomadland,” with three Academy Awards in 2021, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with seven Oscars in the previous year, are prime examples. Other notable works include Korean-American director Peter Sohn’s animated feature “Elemental,” which was nominated for several awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, and Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” with five Golden Globe nominations this year.

The rise in immigrant-centered content aligns with the evolving content landscape. With global OTT(Over-The-Top) platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and Apple+ becoming mainstream, cultural diversity has emerged as a key aspect of the global content market. The success of these stories lies in their ability to blend the unique culture and sentiments of immigrants with universally relatable narratives, striking a balance between local specificity and global appeal. This is evident in “Beef,” where the Korean immigrant experience is intertwined with universally relatable life stories, resonating with audiences worldwide.