And despite some scattered Buddhist references, sin — delivered in heavy doses, hardly just "a touch" — reigns over Zen in the film's four barely connected stories. Before the credits finish rolling, we've witnessed a stone-faced man in a Chicago Bulls beanie (Wang Baoqiang) respond to a trio of roadside muggers with a hail of bullets. Is he a vigilante, or did the robbers just mess with the wrong motorcyclist?
The film's unpredictable tone well established, we continue to nearby "Black Gold Mountain," site of a coal mine whose profits have been funneled into the pockets of its obscenely rich owner and the corrupt local village chief, who's prone to put-downs like "You'll be a loser all your life." On the receiving end of that insult is worker Dahai (Jiang Wu of 2010's Let the Bullets Fly), a human pressure cooker of rage and resentment. Mostly rage, though — and if the film begins to take shape as a rich vs. poor narrative, it all feels very realistic, despite the horrific violence that ensues. "My dear, wait and see. I can be evil," Dahai assures the one person he shows any tenderness toward, a woman from his past who seems none too happy this disheveled, desperate man has paid her a visit.
More unwelcoming women appear in A Touch of Sin's next portion, which picks up the thread of the man in the Bulls hat. He's a migrant worker, traveling home (an infrequent occurrence) for his mother's birthday. She doesn't say a word to him. His wife announces, "I don't want your money," but later softens, even as he plans his next journey in search of work. Fractured families are a recurring motif in A Touch of Sin — as are designer purses. The wife of Dahai's boss passes by workers who've been bribed with bags of flour to come greet her, carrying her own status symbol: Chanel, natch. Later, the migrant worker takes his pistol out for a spin, ambushing a couple whose disposable wealth is telegraphed by the woman's Louis Vuitton tote.
On his way out of town, he shares a bus with a man heading to meet his mistress (Zhao Tao, Jia's wife and muse). It's ultimatum time: get divorced or break up forever. As the man's train rumbles away (A Touch of Sin's characters are constantly in transit, constantly in motion: trains, buses, motorcycles, riding in the backs of trucks, etc.), she travels to her job, working the front desk at "Nightcomer Sauna," as unglamorous a joint as the name suggests. When a pair of wealthy customers decides she's on the menu ("I'm a receptionist, not a masseuse!" she protests; "I'll smother you with money, bitch!" is the response), she's forced to defend herself — but not before taking a beating that echoes the whipping we saw a horse endure earlier in Dahai's village. It's made even crueler by its length, and the steadiness of its blows.
Animals — that horse, a tiger-patterned scarf, the bull on the migrant's hat, a fortuneteller's snakes — filter through each segment, though the most prominent creatures in A Touch of Sin don't appear on the Chinese zodiac chart. That'd be the bag of goldfish released in a "do good deeds and be rewarded in the next life" ploy by a pretty girl (Vivien Li) befriended by Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) in the film's final chapter. He's a waiter with money woes, and she's a prostitute. They click, but "There's no true love in sex work," she declares, with the sad conviction of one who knows. Later, when the lad shifts to factory work, it's clear no amount of freed fish can make this life any less poor. That his company housing is dubbed the "Oasis of Prosperity" would be funny, if it wasn't so depressing.
In A Touch of Sin's final scene, the film's one potentially salvageable character passes by an opera being performed in the street. "Do you understand your sin?" the singer warbles. The character pauses, remembering what happened — and why it had to happen. So do we. And yes, we understand. *