I feel a bit conflicted about Grace Under Fire. On one hand, the cast is fantastic and the character development is extremely well written; on the other hand, sometimes throughout the series, you can’t help but wonder where the plot is going and what the point of it all is. I think this problem stems from the fact that the Chinese title for this series is terribly misleading. In Chinese, “女拳” roughly translates to “Female Fist” so one would expect a lot of fight scenes with Liu Xuan (who plays the female protagonist), which is not the case at all. Although screen-time is more or less evenly distributed between her, Kenneth Ma and Bosco Wong, her scenes are rather weak compared to her male counterparts. Kenneth’s and Bosco’s scenes are always extremely prominent, memorable and emotionally driven. In comparision, Xuan’s are less so hence she’s been reduced to somewhat of a side character until the last few episodes.
Generally speaking, the plot centers on the Guangzhou’s political instability after World War I (1920s). We start off with the introduction of Xuan and Kenneth’s characters who are both employees of a famous, upscale restaurant in Guangzhou. It’s an honest job but Kenneth has always believed that there is more to life than refilling teapots and greeting customers. Before long, they cross paths with Bosco’s character and befriend Fala Chen under unusual circumstances.
I had no idea of what the story arch is at that point so it seemed rather abrupt when the plot suddenly converged into a retelling of the Wong Fei Hung Chronicles during his last few years and his fight against a murky government system.
The Actors in Character
- Liu Xuan — Given the track record of TVB’s abysmal new and upcoming actresses, Xuan did a fantastic job with her role. Even though this is her first time acting, she brings in a lot of grace and poise — something many other TVB actresses of her age (eg. Kaki Leung) have yet to achieve. Her character is so cute; she’s like a determined little eager beaver. I love her character’s bravery and sense of righteousness.
- John Chiang — I didn’t really like his portrayal of Wong Fei Hung, mostly because Jet Li’s version is so prominent in my mind. Granted, it couldn’t have been easy following the footsteps of the dozen or so veterans of the industry who have also played one variation or another of Wong Fei Hung, such as Kwan Tak-Hing, Donnie Yuen, Vincent Zhao, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung. As such, the producer for Grace Under Fire insisted John to “portray Wong Fei-Hung in a relaxing manner, greatly differentiating past portrayals in which most depict Wong Fei-hung as uptight and youthful”. Don’t get me wrong, John played his part with a lot of strength and maturity; however, I was too distracted by how different his portrayal is from Jet Li’s to truly enjoy it. I think I would love it more if his character had any other name than Wong Fei Hung because when you detach his acting from the expectations that come with his role, John did a pretty admirable job.
- Kenneth Ma — If you are a fan of his, then you must watch this series. His role in this is unlike any of the ones he’s played before. Previously, he was always known as the handsome suave hero or the goofy/happy-go-lucky guy. In Grace Under Fire, however, his character is a true opportunist in every regard. No opportunity slips by unfulfilled; ever resource, means and measure is utilized to their highest extent. When things don’t go the way he wants them to, he always finds a way to make it happen. Highly ambitious, arrogant, and manipulative, he is not someone to mess with. When he loves you, he will do so with every fiber of his being, but when he hates you… oh you’d better watch out.
- Bosco Wong — Quiet, reserved, and thoughtfu, Bosco perfectly captures the essence of his role. His character had a very difficult childhood mostly dedicated to caring for his ailing and cynical father, as such he became socially handicapped. Gentle in nature, he has a hard time accepting that everyone in the world is as evil and cunning as his father believes them to be. I think this role is another breakthrough for Bosco’s career. I enjoy his serious roles much more than his silly, comedic ones.
- Fala Chen — Another good series for Fala. She portrays a gold-digger with a heart of gold. Despite her tough exterior she’s actually a very caring and compassionate person even though she has trouble expressing it sometimes.
Other notable actors include:
- Power Chan — He’s so underrated!!
- Oscar Leung — Love him. It’s funny because he’s actually been with TVB for a long time, but he’s always been given really small unmemorable roles. I think the most prominent part he’s played apart from this one was in Gun Metal Grey. I really wish his role was bigger in Grace Under Fire because he has really good on-screen chemistry with Liu Xuan.
- Eddie Kwan — I hated his character in The Gem of Life, but there’s no denying that he brings a lot of nuances and subtlety into his roles and Grace Under Fire is no exception. He is an actor who makes use of every second he is on-screen whether he’s the focus of the shot or just in the background, thus he always stands out. His character here is hands-down the most mysterious and intriguing one of all.
- Dominic Lam and Ngok Wah – You can’t go wrong with these two, but I feel like Ngok Wah’s character is really similar to his role in No Regrets. I love Dominic Lam in the last half of the series though. Some of the expressions he makes in the last few episodes are quite hilarious.
- Liu Xuan was actually an Olympic gold-medal gymnast before she changed career paths to pursue acting.
- Xuan is also the singer to the series’ sub-theme song played during the credits.
- Mok Kwai Lan (portrayed by Liu Xuan) is a non-fictional character who passed away in 1982. (More info here but be warned, there are amples of spoilers)
- To prepare for the role, John Chiang took martial arts training two months in advance of filming. Martial arts practitioner and actor Gordon Liu agreed to help Chiang throughout the filming process. John also requested for the director to add in more scenes that have him fight as he believed Wong Fei-hung should still be very capable of fighting despite his older age.
- The plot has been altered since the previews first aired during TVB’s Sales Presentation. At the time, Xuan’s character was depicted as a reckless and arrogant girl who charged into Wong Fei Hung’s school, and challenged him to a fight. Presumably, she lost and became one of his disciples and eventually his wife. Back then it was strictly a martial arts drama, and not a political one.
Despite my criticism about the this series being horribly misnamed and Kaki Leung’s abysmal acting, Grace Under Fire is worth watching. The plot is extremely character-driven so if you are a fan of Bosco and Kenneth then you will love this series. Just be warned that there’s not a lot of build up to the romance but it doesn’t matter since that’s not really the focus of the show. There aren’t a lot of fights, but for the ones that do take place, they are convincingly done (eg. no crazy wire-work, strength in the stances and the arms, quick fluid movements from the actors, effective cuts and edits, etc). The ending is wrapped up a little too neatly for my liking (especially since our heroine learned so much in such a short amount of time) but there is a specific scene at the end that’s quite shocking. I don’t know how much of it is biographical versus fictional but for what it’s worth, Grace Under Fire is good entertainment.