Study Guide

Chinatown Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

When the movie starts, Jake isn't necessarily doing the most widely respected job in the world. He's a private eye, but his work seems to consist mainly of investigating adultery for suspicious spouses.

At the very beginning of the movie, we see one of Jake's clients, Curly, looking at pictures of his wife having sex with another man—pictures Jake took—before bursting into tears. Jake was also dissatisfied with his former job: he was a cop working in Chinatown, where he failed to protect people because of his difficulties in understanding the culture.

Call To Adventure

Even though Jake became a private investigator in order to escape the difficulties and confusions of being a cop, he ends up getting drawn into a plot full of corruption and deceit anyway.

A woman pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray—wife of the city water department's chief engineer, Hollis Mulwray—hires Jake to discover whether Hollis is cheating on her.

Refusal Of The Call

For about a second, Jake pretends that he's not interested. He tells the fake Mrs. Mulwray that if she loves her husband, she should just go home. But she insists that she needs to know. So, he agrees.

At any rate, he doesn't have any real reason to refuse the offer—it's a simple case, typical adultery gig, albeit with a high profile target. Right?

Meeting The Mentor

But as Jake starts trailing Hollis, he begins to learn things. Although he never actually speaks with Hollis personally, he's able to discover a crime as he follows Hollis around—since Hollis is personally uncovering this crime.

So, in a counter-intuitive way, you could argue that Hollis is Jake's mentor. Someone's stealing water from the city, diverting it at strange times of the night. At one point, Jake follows Hollis down to the ocean, where water from the city reservoirs rushes out into sea in the middle of the night (this is runoff from the water theft).

He also sees Hollis questioning a boy about water coming through the currently dry L.A. riverbed late at night, and one of his assistants sees Hollis having a mysterious conversation with Noah Cross, a man who used to own the water company and Hollis's former partner.

Crossing The Threshold

After Jake discovers what seems to be evidence of Hollis's presumed adultery, it ends up in the city papers, and Hollis is shortly found dead in the reservoir, drowned. Hollis's real wife, the actual Evelyn, has already threatened to sue Jake for investigating her husband without her request.

The whole thing seems like it was set-up to frame Hollis's death as a suicide—but Jake correctly suspects it of being a murder. He feels driven not only to uncover the murder but also to untangle how it's related to the ongoing water theft.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Before Hollis died, Jake had already become acquainted with his real wife, the actual Evelyn. Technically, she's an ally in the case, and she agrees to hire him to investigate her husband's death—but she's also suspicious and seems to know more than she's willing to reveal. When a knife-wielding bad guy slits Jake's nostril open—punishment for snooping around the reservoir where Hollis died—Jake's even more motivated to solve the mystery.

Thanks to a tip from Ida Sessions (the woman who impersonated Evelyn), Jake's able to discover that Evelyn's father, Noah Cross, is buying land outside L.A. in order to move the stolen water there so he can make a profit by controlling it and selling it back to the city.

Approach To The Inmost Cave

So, Jake's solved most of the water-theft issue—but the exact nature of Hollis's death remains mysterious. Even though Evelyn has hinted that her father is extremely dangerous and crazy, Jake still suspects Evelyn herself of killing Hollis—considering that she seems to be holding the woman who Jake believes to be Hollis's former mistress captive.

After a confrontation (in which Jake slaps Evelyn multiple times), she breaks down and admits the truth: the woman is Evelyn's own daughter/sister, the product of incest with her father, Noah. Evelyn's now trying to escape Noah and bring her daughter with her—Jake agrees to help.


Jake tries to help Evelyn leave, while also meeting Noah to accuse him of killing Hollis, committing incest with Evelyn, and stealing the city's water (Jake has realized that Noah drowned Hollis in a saltwater pond in the back of Evelyn's house, since there was saltwater in Hollis's lungs).

Noah admits to everything, but uses a henchman to point a gun at Jake and seize evidence of the murder (Noah's bifocals, which fell in the pond while he was killing Hollis). Then they take Jake to Chinatown to try to prevent Evelyn from leaving.

Reward (Seizing The Sword)

When they arrive on the scene in Chinatown, the cops have already tracked Evelyn down. Jake tries to tell them about what Noah's been doing, but they won't listen. He can't "seize the sword" and is left in a state of powerlessness.

When Evelyn shoots Noah—non-fatally—the cops end up gunning her down in the street. Noah pulls his daughter/granddaughter away from the scene, and the cops yell at Jake to get out of there.

The Road Back

As Jake's assistant, Walsh, leads him away from the scene of Evelyn's death, he tells him, "Forget it, Jake—it's Chinatown."

Jake worked so hard to solve the mystery, and he finally discovered the truth, but his efforts ultimately led to nothing. The bad guys carry the day, and Jake can only walk back to his own life, reflecting on what has happened and where it all went wrong.


For Jake, there's no real resurrection or rebirth—at least, not in a positive way. He survives, but he seems to be dealing with a repetition of what happened in the past, when he worked in Chinatown and was unable to prevent someone from being hurt.

Maybe he's developed and improved as a person, since he was yanked out of his sleazy routine of private eye work and into an investigation that really mattered. But he hasn't succeeded, and who knows what his fate will be?

Maybe Cross will pay someone to kill him, since he knows too much? Maybe Jake will run away? Or maybe he'll convince the cops to investigate Noah's water theft? Who knows?

Return With The Elixir

We don't get to see this part—if it even happens. When the hero returns with the "elixir" it means that her or his experiences have prepared him or her to bring back some kind of benefit to their family or friends or community. They've gained the power to change their world for the better, and they'll continue to do it after making it through the conflict that comprises the movie.

We don't find out if Jake manages to accomplish any of this. He's definitely gone through a tragic experience—putting in lots of work to try to help someone, only to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. By the end of the movie, he may be a sadder but wiser man.

But we don't know what kind of impact he'll continue to have on the world.

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