I was pretty excited to see a female star in a Wong Fei Hung series, since obviously Wong Fei Hung or his male disciples are regularly taking starring or important roles in the series. Sometimes a female steps out as a central character as a love interest but rarely does she play a central role in the fights. Yet now, TVB looks to refresh the Wong Fei Hung franchise by starring on his last wife Mok Kwai-Lan and his last disciple (non-canon and non-historical) Lui Ching-Lung. Although I was intrigued by this new take on Wong Fei Hung, in this series in his 60s and coming to the end of his life, I wasn’t sure I was going to watch it. Yet TVB had been releasing a slew of modern dramas and I was somewhat hopeful for the production value of this drama and its writing, since “A Fistful of Stances” was rather good. So with cautious optimism, I began “Grace Under Fire” starring Liu Xuan, Kenneth Ma, Bosco Wong, John Chiang, and Fala Chen and followed it through for its 32 episodes run.
The story begins in the little big Guangzhou (you know it’s a big place, but since this series only seems to show you several sets it seems pretty small). Mok Kwai-Lan (Liu Xuan) lives in this city with her uncle and her adoptive brother Yau Sam-shui (Ma). Whilst Kwai-Lan is an honest and hardworking girl, Sam-shui is a gambler and loafer who dreams of making a big name for himself as Wong Fei Hung’s disciple. It was at one of the underground fighting rings that both Kwai-Lan and Sam-Shui sees Lui Ching-Lung (Wong), who is called Iron Monkey, fighting to make some cash. After Sam-Shui lost his money on betting on Ching-Lung, he tried to steal Ching-Lung’s medicine to pay a joke on him. However Kwai-Lan decides to take the medicine back to Ching-Lung and discovers that Ching-Lung was bringing medicine to his father. She then brings Wong Fei Hung to help treat Ching-Lung’s father when he was really ill. Meanwhile the governor of the city Tong Yuet Hang (Elliot Ngok) is attempting to gain more riches and power in the city is making plans to get rid of his greatest obstacle, Wong Fei Hung.
First, lets talk about the production. TVB rarely makes expansive shots since most of their series are shot on sets, but somehow I felt more claustrophobic in this series then the others. Another issue I noted was that at times the lighting was really poor. I suppose they wanted to go for a natural lighting in the scene, but I wished they had focus on making sure the actors are highlighted in the scene. But for most of the series, these issues were negligible. Especially once the action got rolling, it was more important to watch the actors for their reactions so I forgot about the lighting and the backgrouwn. The story made some surprising turns, not that the twists were surprising but I was surprised they decided to go with those twists.
Liu Xuan who plays the lead and central role is apparently new to acting with only a few series under her belt prior. It shows as she is pretty stiff with limited range. As a character Kwai-Lan did not show much development except at the end where she gradually grew stronger, but Liu Xuan did not change much. It was more that her character was shown to have grown with more action scenes, change of clothing and with an entire cast around her having changed. She does well enough with the fight scenes, but I would have liked to see her character be more physical. Especially considering that she was a gold medal gymnast I would have liked to see more acrobatic or flexible movement. Maybe Hung Gar is just not the style for her, I didn’t feel any strength in her punches. I wished she did more Mok Gar considering it was style based on kicks, maybe she would have more to show off. Such as with Bosco, in his early fight scenes, I really felt the tension and the impact of the fists both on Bosco and by Bosco.
At first, Bosco’s character Ching-Lung begin like other characters I’ve seen him play (the unresponsive, wild and aggressive types) and he does it well, but I was surprised by the arc the character went through. And Bosco played the character with a twist I didn’t expect; that Ching-Lung was rather quiet. As he developed, I could see Ching-Lung become more quiet, more conscious and thinking. I’m also glad they cast Bosco into this series because Bosco did really well with his fight scenes. He really went for it, and is a very physical actor. For the series, he did most of the fight scenes and without him, I think this series would have been a lot weaker.
This was Kenneth Ma’s first villian role and I felt he really went for it. He was really into his character and did well in expressing all the clear differences in him in his three different phases. Sometimes his expressions were over exaggerated, especially as a villian, but it was probably just as well since Liu Xuan was so limited and it emphasizes how off his rocker he’s become. He didn’t have fighting scenes, but he did take a lot of beatings. I’ve seen him in outer series where he had to fight and he did pretty well so I know he’s not afraid to get in to it, but I really wished there was a fight between Ching-Lung and Sam-Shui. On the poster it looked like they will go head to head but that really didn’t happen.
Fala Chen has really been given in a lot of TVB roles lately. I know she was involved in TVB’s beauty pageant and they want to promote her as a starlet, but though I see protential I don’t think she’s there yet. She’s certainly very pretty but I don’t think she has the same screen presence as say, Charmaine Sheh, who isn’t that strong as an actress either. As a headstrong character she was doing ok, but when she had her vulnerable scenes with crying I felt her weaknesses really shown through. Perhaps she’ll grow like Tavia Yeung, but as of yet I say shes currently like Bernice Liu; play the cool characters not the sobby ones.
I don’t know what to say about John Chiang and Elliot Ngok and the older casts. You know they’ve done all this before and they do it really well. I felt John Chiang has really grown old, his forms didn’t seems as strong as he used to be, but he still has a lot of golden screen presence and makes a great aging Wong Fei Hung. To see him back together with Bosco is not too since “The Young Wong Fei Hung” where they played father and son. They still look good together doing Hung Gar.
Despite the decision to go with a lead female character, I don’t think TVB went with any feminist message. Kwai-Lan isn’t a different kind of TVB heroine. Over all I liked the series. Not the redefining series of the Wong Fei Hung franchise I was expecting, but still good all the same. If you seen” Grace Under Fire”, hit the comments below with your ideas.