Interesting Things About the American English Language: The Difference Between "Kung Fu" and "Karate"
When speaking about the typical American, one would usually say that most of us don’t know the difference between Karate and Kung Fu. And I would have to agree with that—but only in part: Americans don’t know the traditional difference between Karate and Kung Fu as far as differing styles of Asian martial art are concerned, but we—being Americans—have invented our own difference. Think about martial arts films for a moment. For Americans there is a major difference between a Kung Fu movie and a Karate movie, even though we didn’t consciously choose to differentiate between the two.
First, the Kung Fu film, the elder of the two genres. As far as the American market is concerned, Kung Fu movies came into existence in the late sixties / early seventies as terribly dubbed Hong Kong films started to pop up all over the place. The low budget dubbing of these films made them a bit of a kitsch film genre—around the same level as blaxploitation, sexploitation and grindhouse films, sometime leading to films that were a horrible mix of Kung Fu and another kitsch genre.
But like their kin, they proved to be stupidly popular. Eventually the industry somewhat peaked with actors like Sammo Hung, Sonny Chiba and—of course—Bruce Lee.
These films—and their modern followers—displayed one of the aspects of Kung Fu film that interminably pisses off hipsters and asshole martial artists: the fighting style used in the film need not be Kung Fu or, really, have any relation whatsoever to Kung Fu. Enter the Dragonis one of the single best and most popular Kung Fu movies of all time and throughout the film Bruce Lee doesn’t use true Kung Fu even once, preferring instead to use Jeet Kun Do. As for modern films, in his breakthrough (at least as far as American audiences are concerned) film Ong-bak, Tony Jaa primarily uses a Muay Thai variant to whoop ass, as seen below (seriously, if you’ve never seen Ong-bak—or, for that matter, any Tony Jaa film—you need to re-evaluate your life, the film has some of the most realistic and brutal fight scenes in film history)
Flash forward to the modern era: Kung Fu movies have declined in popularity, but still show up ever now and again. Advancements in special effects and dubbing artistry, combined with the fact that the films aren’t churned out as quickly as child abuse in a sweat shop has led to a near extinction of the kitsch that was once a defining feature of the genre. By modern standards, a Kung Fu movie is a martial arts film—of course, regardless of style—with an adult protagonist, more brutal or realistic violence (heavy bruises / swelling, actual presence of blood for something other than a split lip, etc) and usually a serious plot (the exception to this rule is anything that Jackie Chan makes. No, really, anything Jackie Chan makes).
Now, Karate movies, on the other hand are a completely different creature. Karate movies came into proliferation in the mid-eighties and their heyday stretched comfortably into the nineties. The most obvious example of a Karate film is 1984’s The Karate Kid.
Yup, that was totally Vice-Council DuPont / Father from Equilibrium behaving like a fucking psycho in a kid’s movie while wearing enough makeup to choke a trophy wife.
The point is, the difference between Kung Fu movies and Karate movies is that where Kung Fu movies have an adult protagonist, Karate movies have a kid. Where Kung Fu movies have violence that is brutal and realistic, Karate movies have violence that is cartoonish and silly. Where Kung Fu movies have a serious plot, Karate movies have one that is flippant and child-appropriate.
But now we run into a problem, don’t we? Because, as silly and kitschy as Warriors of Virtue might be, it doesn’t really follow any of those rules except the first one. Granted, it has giant kangaroos as major characters and its plot is entirely made up of symbolism more heavy-handed than that employed by a fifteen-year-old poet, but it’s still not really a silly film. Funny, sure, but not silly. Add to that the fact that in the above-shown final battle, while the bruising and blood aren’t anywhere near realistic (then again, I’m not really sure how a kangaroo bruises/bleeds when one beats the ever-loving shit out of it), it’s still more intense than 3 Ninjas. That’s because Warriors of Virtue tried to be in a new genre: the Kung Fu Karate movie. This hybrid tends to fall neatly into the PG-13 rating (rather than the PG rating of most Karate films or the R rating of most Kung Fu films). It has a child protagonist, but it wants to appeal to a teen demographic rather than a kid demographic. It tries to achieve this through a bit more blood than usual (say, right around original Indiana Jones or James Bond levels), and a darker storyline. Warriors of Virtue failed in their attempt—and failed miserably—but why? Was it because Angus Macfadyen acted like aforementioned fucking psycho? No, methinks his performance is one of the only high points of the film. Was it the complete lack of a decent story? Meh, you went to go see Transformers didn’t you? Was it the ineffably retarded giant motherfucking kung fu kangaroos? No, I don’t…oh wait. Yes. Yes, it was absolutely the giant motherfucking kung fu kangaroos.