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Ugly duckling turns into a swan
Chinese actress Qin Hailu was overjoyed last year when she picked up five top awards for what was her first-ever film, "Durian Durian."
The 23-year-old from Dalian in Northeast China's Liaoning Province received awards for Best Actress of 2000 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Annual Awards; Best Actress of the Sixth Golden Bauhinia Awards; Best Newcomer of the 20th Hong Kong Film Awards; Best Actress and Best Newcomer of the 38th Taiwan Golden Horse Film Awards; Best Actress Nominee of the 57th Venice Film Festival.
Qin Hailu was an unknown graduate from the Central Academy of Drama. She stole the spotlight and pleased Chinese film circuits when she starred in a Chinese language film.
Born with a movie projectionist father and an amateur actress mother, Qin learned to dance at the local Children's Palace not long after she was able to walk!
At the age of 6, she was sent to a Peking Opera school in Yingkou, about 100 kilometres away from her home town. Here,she played the role of "daoma dan," a female role in Peking Opera who has martial arts skills.
Qin spent 10 years, most of her girlhood, in a strict, even harsh training room with shabby mats and cold bars, at a time when most children her age were having fun.
Bearing the teachers' words in mind, "You could earn fame and luxury here," Qin worked hard without complaining.
However, the work was really tough for her. Besides singing, Qin had to do plenty of difficult physical training, some of which was martial arts. What's more, the teachers demanded more from her than from her peers.
"They thought I was a gifted student, so they often assigned me more practice routines so that I would use my potential and become a star on the stage one day," she recalled.
Once after a class, a martial arts teacher asked her to do more "whirlwind somersaults" to the rhythm of his stick that he was knocking on the ground.
He knocked once, she leaped once. He did not stop, she kept leaping. She did not stop until the teacher felt tired of knocking.
"Even now, I still remember clearly that I did 289 flying-leaps that afternoon with tears and sweat running down my face."
Perhaps as a result of all of her training, Qin is now a strong-minded and independent woman.
She joined a local Peking opera theatre after completing her training.
At one point in Qin's career she decided that she wanted to further her studies instead of working. Thus in 1996, when she heard that the Central Academy of Traditional Opera was recruiting students, she travelled to Beijing to have a go at auditioning.
She was late, however, as three rounds of tests had already finished. But Chang Li, the teacher in charge of recruiting, who later became her instructor, saw for herself Qin's talents and offered her another chance.
"I liked the plain-looking but smart girl on the first moment," said Chang. "So I gave her permission to undergo tests right away."
Qin was first asked to perform a five-minute solo act using a red silk handkerchief and an umbrella as props, whilst dancing to specific Peking opera routines.
Chang recalled that Qin acted as a charming girl who walked out of the door, to find it raining. She took off the red handkerchief and held it over her head to shelter herself from the rain. But it was raining heavily and the handkerchief was useless, so she goes back home to get her umbrella. Stepping out again, she fell (a Peking Opera gesture).
"All the teachers watching were amazed that she had thought out the idea all by herself in a few seconds and had acted so well," Chang said, "Usually, students prepare for about half an hour just for one piece."
Then, Qin performed her specialty, Peking Opera "Legend of the White Snake." She, alone, tackled two characters, Bai Suzhen, the White Snake, and Xiao Qin, the Green Snake.
"She portrayed the two different roles vividly," Chang said.
Finally, Qin danced skillfully with a 32-metre-long silk fabric.
"Her three performances won every teacher's heart at once," Chang said.
Yet, only after she had finished all of the tests including the written ones, did Qin learn that she was at the Central Drama Academy instead of at the Traditional Opera Academy.
Therefore, quite by accident, Qin found herself enrolled at the academy which has produced many outstanding international film stars, including Gong Li.
Qin's classmates include Zhang Ziyi, famous for her role in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home," Liu Ye, Best Actor of the 38th Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, Yuan Quan and Mei Ting, popular actresses both on the domestic stage and screen.
In Chang's eyes, Qin was the one who showed the "best perceptibility of the arts" in class, and she also did well in the academy. But Qin remained wary during her four years in school .
Her classmate Liu Ye said in a joke after they both won the best actress and actor of the Golden Horse Awards last December, "She was the poorest-looking girl in my class."
For movies, dramas and even TV advertisements, many directors visit the drama academy to choose actresses, simply by looking at their photos first, or just by asking the assistant to select someone for them.
"Once I saw some girls' photos in the bin, so I thought my photos would have been thrown away too" Qin said, forcing a smile.
"The most depressing day was when I entered the classroom in the morning to find I was the only one in the class," Qin recalled.
"But I never doubted my ability and I always remember Chang's words, 'Settle down and concentrate on your study now. Don't act until you meet a good director,' " Qin said.
So during the four years, Qin never asked for permission to leave the academy to act, not even for an advertisement. Only when she met Fruit Chan, one of the most famous independent film-makers in Hong Kong, did she reconsider.
It was in 1999 when Chan visited the academy to see the performance of the students. He found Qin in the audience, among dozens of pretty faces.
"There is something about her that is special," Chan said, "Her ordinary face and solitary and melancholy disposition fits Yan, the role I created in 'Durian Durian'."
Thus, not long before graduation, Qin got her first opportunity without knowing whether or not she would be successful.
"Durian, Durian" inspired her as she adapted to the part of Yan quite naturally. "Durian" is the name of a strange prickly, evil-smelling but sweet-tasting fruit. It is a metaphor for Fruit Chan's character's constant search for hope in a hostile world.
"Durian Durian," tells the story about two illegal Chinese immigrants Yan and Fan struggling for survival in the back streets of Hong Kong.
Yan eventually wants to get money and go back home to restart her life. But she has become an outsider in her hometown and Hong Kong lingers as a series of bad memories and dangerous temptations.
Her path becomes clear when she receives a durian, a New Year gift from Fan.
Qin, in her first film, is simply astonishing, negotiating the gap between a surprisingly dignified, unshakably confident prostitute and a new, independent woman determined to escape from the constricting social structures of her hometown.
However, the film did not bring her instant fame.
"Even after graduation in the summer of 2000, I was going to find an ordinary job, I planned to work in an office," she said calmly.
Today, Qin is in the media spotlight and lives pretty much like a celebrity flying across the country to accept awards and to attend parties.
"After winning the first award, I was worried about how I should dress," she recalled.
"Yet I told myself, 'that I had just acted in a movie and won an award, so I calmed down ," she said.
"The entertainment world is bustling and competitive. she said.
"I hope to achieve great things as an actress but I will never forget that family are the most important thing."
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