Qin Lan in "City of Life and Death"
Until "City of Life and Death" came along, Qin Lan was best known as the pretty and fragile face of romantic TV series.
But in this film on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, Qin plays the tough Mrs Tang, wife of the secretary to John Rabe, the German businessman who set up a safety zone and protected 200,000 Chinese from the massacre.
Tang had only three lines and five scenes in the original script. Qin read many historical records and sent an e-mail to director Lu Chuan, suggesting that her character could be made more colorful.
"I think the portrayal of family life, of the loving relationship between husband and wife during a time of war, can be very touching," she says.
"Such scenes create a sharp contrast with the war's cruelty, making the story more dramatic."
Qin's Tang, as well as teacher Jiang Shuyun and prostitute Xiao Jiang, were the kind of women who struggled to save themselves and their compatriots in their own unique ways.
In Qin's favorite scene, the Japanese army comes to the safety zone and asks for 100 women, threatening to withhold coal, food and clothes for the refugees. One after another, the women raise their hands so that their compatriots can survive the winter.
"Chinese women are not very open in expressing themselves, especially when it is about sex," says Qin.
"But here the women overcome their shame of being insulted and their fear of death. People say women are fragile but the film opened my eyes to their strength and power."
Qin, 28, grew up in Shenyang in Northeast China. She would have been an accountant had she not taken part in a talent contest in 1999. She stood out in the model category and that started her acting career in Beijing.
She rose to stardom in 2002 with "Princess Huanzhu (Huanzhu Gege)", a TV series based on Taiwan writer Qiong Yao's novel. Thanks to the author's popularity in the mainland and in Taiwan, Qin quickly became a well-known name.
But for a long time she was stereotyped as a pretty girl in love stories, until she was cast by Lu Chuan to play Mrs Tang.
The role excited Qin, but required patience and hard work.
One scene that remains vivid in Qin's memory is of Tang saying farewell to her husband as he gives up his city permit to a Chinese officer.
Qin clings to the wire netting as she sees her husband for the last time. While shooting this scene, it was felt that the light was not enough and a thousand-watt light bulb was placed behind Qin.
It was so close that her ears were singed and when she took off her gloves, she found that part of her skin had peeled off and was stuck to the leather.
Many scenes between Tang and her husband were shot in an old house built more than 70 years ago. To give it a convincing wartime feel, the set designers burned tires to generate black smoke. Qin had to breathe and eat in this acrid air.
She says her role in this film was the most exhausting, but also very worthwhile.
"I learned a lot about the history of that period and see it as my mission to tell it to more people."
(China Daily, April 14, 2009)