In common parlance, "martial arts" refers to Asian martial arts—judo, karate, kung fu, tae kwan do. Though the Occident may boast of fighting techniques, both armed and unarmed—boxing, fencing, archery—the term "martial arts" retains its association with Asia. Thus, the martial arts genre is derived from Asian films that focus on the skills, exploits, and philosophies revolving around these particular fighting styles when employed by various recurring figures. Yet if the martial arts as an all-encompassing rubric has come to be applied to any number of fighting styles within and outside of Asia, so, too, the martial arts film has made its way into global film culture. If the martial arts film was originally the specific product of Chinese cinema in the late 1920s, carried over into the Hong Kong cinema after World War II, and reaching its height in the early 1970s in the former British colony, then by the 1980s one could truly claim something like a transnational martial arts genre with films from Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, and the US (among others) clearly working with motifs, character types, and choreography inspired by or derived from the Chinese originals.
The ubiquity of martial arts in films since the 1970s—in the action, police thriller, comedy, war, and science fiction and fantasy genres—makes defining a separate genre difficult. Nevertheless, the genre relies upon a protagonist skilled, generally, in Asian martial arts, whose specific skills must be put to the test in bringing about the resolution of the plot. There are typical and recurring motifs such as an early defeat or setback, receiving further training in the martial arts (usually by an older Asian master), and then testing those skills on lesser opponents along the way to the climactic duel. As a specific genre, the martial arts film has given rise to numerous stories about the training for and participation in a climactic martial arts tournament—a motif derived from Hong Kong films, but one popular in Hollywood as well.