It is hard to disparage a “message movie”, especially one with a topic as important as the worldwide AIDS epidemic. 3 Needlespresents three thought-provoking tales (that don’t overlap, except for their AIDS theme) tackling the epidemic. The stories span three continents, but are united in that they contain complicated, morally questionable actions by their characters—actions that, given the circumstances, are tricky to completely criticize.
One way that 3 Needles is refreshingly unique is that it is an AIDS film that is not about gay white men—the original poster-boys for the disease. The reality of the modern disease is much more complex. The victims in 3 Needles are men, women, and children from all backgrounds and cultures. These are the people that don’t make the news anymore because many Westerners think AIDS is yesterday’s news.
Writer/Director Thom Fitzgerald has pulled together an impressive cast of recognizable faces, like Olympia Dukakis, Lucy Liu, Chloe Sevigny, and Stockard Channing, and mixed them with equally strong unknowns. One story takes place in China, where a blood-trader (Lucy Liu) realizes that whole villagers of blood donors are getting sick from the practice of sharing the same needles. In Canada, a porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) knowingly fakes his regular blood tests so that he can keep working. When it is exposed that he has spread the disease to several of his co-stars, his mother (Stockard Channing) takes drastic measures to ensure the best for her and her son’s future. Finally, Dukakis, Sevigny, and Sandra Oh play three missionaries that arrive in Africa with rosy ideas of how to help the locals, but are given several extremely harsh reality checks about the culture of AIDS that is ravaging the native people.
It is all good in theory, and the film is beautifully shot—but somehow 3 Needles never soars as it should. The three stories are basically unrelated, threaded together by a weak and kind of cheesy voiceover that is more distracting than helpful. Lucy Liu, depsite being fluent (at least to my ears) in the Chinese dialect that her role demands, seems to be a bit too glam and Western for her role as a black market blood trader. This segment, though interesting, comes across as a Western idea of what life in a Chinese village might seem like. It never quite rings true. Stockard Channing unsurprisingly steals the middle section of the film, taking place in urban Canada—even if IMDB message boards were a flurry of confusion over what exactly her character did. And finally, the Africa portion, though well-acted by Sevigny who anchors the plot, feels like it could have (or should have) been a film in itself. The conclusion is horrific, but you feel a bit shortchanged about getting to know some of the characters.
Though 3 Needles is indeed an important movie, it is still frustrating. It is important in that it tackles complicated stories about AIDS that have barely been touched upon in mainstream cinema, but it frustrates as much as depresses. Luckily you can take that frustration and watch all the extras on the DVD, which point you to various organizations that will help you focus that energy, to help take action in the fight against this terrible disease.