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At the end of the amazing film Chinatown, Jake Gittes is told, 'Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown'.

What are supposed to deduce from this? Is it that Jake is powerless to prevent or challenge what had just occurred?

Is it that horrible things like this happen all the time in Chinatown and therefore nobody cares?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I believe the author left it up to interpretation, as I didn't find an "official" answer on the web.

There's a FAQ on IMDB about a similar question, though the answer doesn't source anything.

What is the meaning of "Chinatown" and the last line of the movie?

As a young man, Jake was a police officer in Chinatown. He once tried to protect a woman, but as a direct result of his intervention, she was "hurt" (an implication that the woman died). As a result, Jake became cynical and apathetic. Over the course of his investigation in the film, Jake again tries to protect a woman, and once again, she is killed as a direct result of his intervention."Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown" is an encouragement to Jake to forget this set of circumstances, just as he "forgot" the circumstances surrounding his time in Chinatown. The dramatic irony of this is that the viewer knows that Jake has never forgotten what happened in Chinatown, and that he will probably never forget the events depicted in the movie, inevitably leading to him becoming even more cynical and apathetic than he was already.

I think the line is a simple reaction to tragedy. What can you do to carry on but "forget" (and possibly forgive yourself)?

More importantly, what does the line mean to you? That interpretation is just as valid as any.

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I found a good answer for this question from here,

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" means "you can't change things, it's the way things are and the way they will be, regardless of how much you tilt at windmills. The line is about the futility of fighting injustices and darkness in the world. It's about giving up and looking away, because nothing can be done anyway lest you become another casualty of injustice.

Chinatown is the world. Jake is everyone. Forgetting about it is what we all do anyway, and so what we may as well keep doing.

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You also can't separate the ending of the movie from the recent happenings in Polanski's life at that time, given the cruel and purposeless way in which his wife and love, Sharon Tate, was killed in cold blood by the Manson "family" only a few years prior. A sad reflection of Polanski's life experience unfortunately

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In addition to the other interesting answers, I'd like to emphasize the meaning of "Chinatown" in that quote a bit more. The impression I got, especially when Jake's past as a Chinatown cop is mentioned, is that Chinatown was a particularly tough area of the city, full of organized crime and corruption (maybe because nobody cared for it) and as a Chinatown cop you just had to develop kind of a cynical view and that you maybe also couldn't resist being slowly dragged into that swamp of corruption and violence when working there.

So I understood this quote to mean that in Chinatown bad things happen all the time and the good guys can't win anyway and Jake, who should know this from the past, should rather just accept this fact and get over it in order to not make things any worse, since he cannot change it.

But in the end it probably was a kind of a vicous circle. Nobody cared for Chinatown and therefore it developed into that kind of criminal hell, and for this reason in turn nobdy cares for this place. And if I remember correctly this quote came from one of those slightly corrupt or at least cynical policemen that don't care about Chinatown at all. So it might also just have meant that they (the police) didn't have any interrest in clearing this case when they could just put it into the shelf as another of those usual Chinatown incidents, so Jake shouldn't care or hope for anything either. So I'd agree with both your own explanations and it was probably a bit of both.

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I think the ending of Chinatown is about coping with grief - and really summarises the moral struggles of Jake throughout the movie, leading us to an evaluation of guilt and self-forgiveness. Polanski actually changed the original ending to the film, which was initially going to be a happy ending, with Evelyn escaping and Jake dying, however Polanski insisted on the change.

It's hard to tell exactly why Polanski made this change, however, with reference to his wife's murder in 1969, a viewer can begin to appreciate the hopelessness of Jake's statement and the bleak ending of the film. Polanski said that his absence on the night of his wife's murder was the biggest regret of his life - Jake's regret for the unnamed woman who died in Chinatown is similar.

We can't always help what happens in our lives, and it frustrates and torments us when someone we love is hurt - we blame ourselves. By consoling ourselves that its Chinatown we accept that we don't control our lives, even if we want to, and that's ok.

However, Jake's consolation could also be construed as a critique of justice and futility, with Walsh forming a sort of Senecan prototype of fortune and immorality/injustice. Either way it is one of my favourite movie quotes!

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1  
The question is about the dialogue in the ending rather than the ending itself. –  coleopterist Nov 12 '13 at 12:31

Great Answers! Like a lot of questions I think you can interpret it a lot of ways but after decades of watching Chinatown I'd like to inject this interpretation...

Opening scenes of Jake's new career paint the picture of him as a pretty disreputable opportunist. Photographing unfaithful partners and facilitating their Hollywood divorces are stereotypical examples of the work of mercenary private eyes.

Jake is a former police officer with no love lost between him and a few members of the LAPD. The noire sensibility of the film and and the real history of the LAPD indicate that Jake was either an incredibly corrupt cop for not getting along with them, or an honest man that chose what some would view as a sketchy way to make a living rather than dealing with the hypocrisy of his former career. The latter is what his interaction with his former colleagues seems to point to.

The catalyst for the change in Jake, the tipping point, is painted ominously as events that occurred in Chinatown. While the events are never delineated, Jake is clearly concerned about operating in that area, and people that know him know that he should be.

The Chinese characters in the film are all (with the exception of the gardener) party to the main coverup of the film. The virtual imprisonment, including the drug induced somnolence, of Katherine occurs with either their tacit or active participation. When Jake decides to help Evelyn and Katherine escape, it is the Chinese butler and other household staff that get enlisted in the effort to hide her from Cross, the father of both women.

Jake makes the choice to send them to Chinatown. He reintroduces the moral conflict that drove him away from the police force and into his sketchy new life. Rather than walk away from the old conflicts and uncertainties in the way that he did by hiding from them as a disinterested private eye, he confronts the old demons head on.

The dark climax of the film reinforces the central message that fate is inescapable. No matter what our motives or our actions the cycle of life confronts us with the consequences of our destructive nature. "Forget it Jake- it's Chinatown" means there is no escaping those consequences. Evelyn meets her doom and Jake is forced to bear witness to it instead of hide from it the way he tried to by leaving the LAPD.

Apologies for the long winded answer, just in case you didn't know...LOVE THIS MOVIE.

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