China’s favorite foreign film is the 1972 Yugoslav war movie

When Walter Defends Sarajevo was shown in the former Yugoslavia in April 1972, no one could have predicted that it would become one of the most watched films of all time.

But that’s exactly what happened, after the war movie unexpectedly became a sensation half a world away – in China.

Walter arrived in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution. One of the few foreign films approved for release during this period, it has astounded people who have been hungry for entertainment options for more than half a decade.

The tale of a heroic partisan resisting Nazi occupation, the film offered everything the Chinese revolutionary opera of the time did not: complex characters, bizarre locations, and steady action sequences.

It wasn’t like any movie any of us had seen.

Over a billion people have been seen roaming the land, playing in factories and entire villages in makeshift performances. Fifty years after it debuted, many in China can still tell whole scenes line by line.

Zhong Lei was among the young men in 1970s China who fell under the spell of “Walter”. Growing up in the central city of Wuhan, he got to see some world-class films — mostly documentaries — but Walter was another experience entirely.

“It wasn’t like a movie any of us had seen,” says Chung, 58, now a retired architect. “He showed us another side of the world.”

The film also inspired a generation of young Chinese filmmakers, who went on to create the first modern action films in China in the late 1970s and 1980s. Walter’s influence on Chinese cinema can be seen decades later, says Wang Yao, an associate researcher at the Beijing Film Academy’s Chinese Cultural Institute of Film.

Walter’s major fights were “the first time many in China saw fireworks on the big screen,” says Wang. “Some metaphors from the movie—the use of codewords, the exchange of uniforms and identities to infiltrate enemy camp, gun battles on moving trains. – Adapted by Chinese filmmakers over and over again.”

The film entered China thanks to a shift in Cold War politics. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, China’s market for international films was negligible. Features upon release were almost entirely limited to Chinese government-produced documentaries or cinematic versions of “model operas” – musicals that incorporate harsh themes of class struggle and patriotism.

But times were slowly changing. As tensions escalated between China and the Soviet Union, China sought closer relations with Albania and Romania, and restored relations with Yugoslavia. One of the results of this was an increase in cultural exchange, which gradually led to the screening of films from the three Eastern European countries.

The legacy of “Walter Defends Sarajevo” in China. By Fu Beimeng / Sixth Tone

“Walter Defends Sarajevo” was one of those films. By 1973, the Chinese film industry—which was largely controlled by Jiang Cheng, Chairman Mao’s wife—began to show select foreign works and bring them to audiences, says Wang. The Yugoslav title proved to be an instant success.

“Sometimes there were outdoor shows, or they would take a 16mm projector from village to village and stage the shows,” Wang says. “There have also been performances in military camps, factories, and schools, so I guess you could say they’ve been seen billions of times.”

It would have turned out that Walter was an excellent movie – the product of a thriving Yugoslav film industry heavily influenced by Hollywood. Directed by Bosnian star Hjrudin Kravak, the film was loosely based on the story of World War II partisan leader Vladimir Perek, who fought against the Nazis under the code name Walter before being killed in the Battle of Sarajevo’s liberation in 1945.

Starring powerful actor Velimir “Bata” Zuvoinovic as the titular character, the film turns against the Nazis’ attempts to unmask Walter, whose true identity is a closely guarded secret among his supporters. Fearing that the revolutionaries would threaten their plans to use Sarajevo as a fuel base for their tanks, the Nazi occupiers plot a plot to infiltrate the city using a man impersonating Walter, hoping to get this real man out of hiding.

There is betrayal, intrigue, and a series of impressive chains of events along the way, with Krvavac taking inspiration from Hollywood blockbusters such as the 1961 World War II action movie “The Guns of Navarone.” To this day, “Walter” remains the most popular Yugoslav film of all time.

The creators of “Walter Defends Sarajevo” pose for a photo with Chinese fans of the movie during their tour of China. Courtesy of Nebojsa Jovanovic

“If you are a fan of Yugoslav cinema, you really can’t avoid it,” says Nebojsa Jovanovic, a Sarajevo-based historian and film theorist. “It’s the most-quoted Yugoslav movie ever…For the generation here who were in elementary school in the early ’70s to early ’80s, it was a kind of rite of passage to know all the lines of the movie.”

The film had the same effect on its Chinese audience. At the time, China’s entertainment industry often launched the dubbed dialogue of international films as a form of broadcast play – in many cases, months before the film reached many communities. By the time “Walter” was released, Wang says, many viewers knew the script by heart.

Wang, who was born in the ’80s, was too young to see “Walter” himself, but he remembers it being one of the few movies his parents talked about. Since joining the BFA, he has heard countless tales from the 1970s generation of school children re-enacting scenes from the movie in the playground.

“The radio show, about one hour per movie, was really popular in the ’70s and ’80s,” Wang says. “A lot of people didn’t have access to the movie, but they had access to the radio…My mother told me she learned a lot of these movies by heart before watching them.”

As the legend around “Walter” grew, an entire cottage industry associated with the film emerged. A Chinese beer labeled “Walter” has been released, with a photo of the hero on its label. Later came Walter’s picture books, plays, and even the musical.

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GIF image showing details from a comic book adaptation of the movie Walter Defends Sarajevo. from the user
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Sevonovic made regular trips to China after the film’s release, and received a hero’s welcome wherever he went. The star, with its charm and decadent determination, has become an icon in the country. However, historian Yovanovitch attributes much of Walter’s success to Cervavac’s skill as a director.

“He had this theory that filmmaking should be about acting,” says Yovanovitch. “He saw actors as very fragile beings, people whose only existence depends on their vision and appearance that will fade at some point…The actors were really crazy about that.”

The movie had a huge impact on Chinese film — in every way.

Wang says later Chinese directors relied heavily on Kravavac’s work. The explosions, fight scenes, and espionage operations in Walter’s film were hugely influential, as were the film’s sophisticated editing and subtle themes of identity. Unlike traditional Chinese patriotic films, each character in “Walter” is multi-layered, with shades of light and dark.

“You never know who Walter is, who are the good guys and who are the bad,” Wang says. “The movie had a huge impact on Chinese film – in every way.”

In recent years, many Balkan countries that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia have used “Walter” as a tool to build diplomatic and economic relations with China. When President Xi Jinping visited Serbia in 2016, the hosts began playing the film’s theme song during a state banquet, prompting the Chinese leader to sing vocals about the film.

Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, aims to harness the film’s popularity to attract Chinese tourists. In 2019, a small museum dedicated to the film “Walter” was opened, and tours of the city were being worked out around the film.

However, disruption of global travel during the pandemic has derailed many of these plans. The remake of “Walter” – a co-production between Chinese and Serbian studios – as well as any official celebrations marking the original film’s 50th anniversary have been postponed.

Film creators captures

The creators of “Walter Defends Sarajevo” take a photo while on tour in China. Courtesy of Nebojsa Jovanovic

At a cinema center in Sarajevo, curator Mia Sego hopes the freeze is temporary. The facility is expanding its collection of exhibits praising the film, and is building on renewed interest from Chinese visitors once international travel becomes easier.

“In China in the 1970s, ‘Walter Defends Sarajevo’ was for many viewers a window into the unfamiliar outside world,” says Sego. Iconic lines from the movie – including ‘Do You See This City?’ This is Walter! It has become ingrained in the collective memory of an entire Chinese generation. Because of all this, the film, and now the museum, connects the people and culture of Bosnia and China.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Banner photo: Chinese poster for the 1972 film Walter Defends Sarajevo. Courtesy of Nebojsa Jovanovic)

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