Wolfe Video // 2007 // 127 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Katie Herrell (Retired) // April 3rd, 2007
"You may be a Saint right now and not even know it."
Chilling. Compelling. Corrupt.
3 Needles is three separate stories about one disease: AIDS. The first takes place in China, where Jin Ping (Lucy Liu) is running a dirty and illegal blood bank. The second takes place in Canada where porn star Denys (Shawn Ashmore) is knowingly (but not maliciously) infecting other porn actors to provide for his parents. And the third is set in South Africa, where nun Clara (Chloö Sevigny) forfeits her sacred vow to ensure commonplace necessities in one poverty and disease-ridden village.
There is little chance that 3 Needles will be showing at a theater near you any time soon. This is not a feel-good story about AIDS -- if there is such a thing. This isn't a public-service announcement about the evils of unprotected sex and dirty drug needles. And there isn't one (openly) gay man or a poor white baby stricken through a heroin-addict mother in the entire movie. This is a movie that displays AIDS as the result of extremely bad (or odd) judgement. It shows how the disease travels unknowingly. It shows that AIDS preys on the poverty-stricken. And more than anything, it shows that AIDS is preventable.
In the first story, it is hard to tell if Jin Ping is a good character or a bad one. For five dollars, every eligible member in one poverty-stricken town lines up to donate blood through Ping's bank. This money buys much-needed necessities such as seeds and fertilizer. The story simultaneously revolves around Ping and a farmer, Tong Sam (Tanabadee Chokpikultong), who uses his 10-year-old daughter (lying that she's really 12, the age required to donate) as the family donor when a cough prevents him from filling the role. We see the dangers of Ping's job as she is stopped along the roadside by Chinese lawmen; her contraband turned into a splashing puddle, and the pregnant Ping repeatedly raped. She must pay off her attackers for her freedom. She then travels to her son and supposed husband, an ill brute of a fellow who encourages her to keep her blood bank going -- even as she suspects it is responsible for the town's raging epidemic, including the sickness and eventual death of Sam's daughter and wife.
The reason it is hard to discern Ping's motives is that, even as the horrendous nature of her deeds become glaringly obvious, she remains impeccably stoic. Liu does an amazing job of keeping her face flat and devoid of emotion. She is not a conniving money grubber or a ruthless racist. She is simply a tired, pregnant entrepreneur, struggling with an abusive husband, and a desire to maintain her status as breadwinner, even as she suspects her services are leaving death it their wake.
Tong Sam and his vibrant daughter equally excel at their roles. She is a nymph of energy and smarts, happily contributing to her family's purse. And Sam, excellently cast, is a naïve, desperate man who pays an exorbitant price for a field full of wheat. My only complaint is that he doesn't really portray the rage and sadness that must overtake him near the end of the film.
The scenery of China is amazing, with steeped, colorful fields. The costuming is also magnificent, bright ensembles that bely (maybe unrealistically) the poverty of the area. The music uplifts the ultimately depressing story with lilts and songs of beyond.
The second story, set in Montreal, is bizarre from the beginning. Fake flames set the stage of a low-budget porn flick, the source of income for Denys. Here we learn the actors are tested for STDs once a month and that safe-sex is not something porn flicks are made of. The story then follows Denys to his parent's house where his ailing father has become the unwitting supply of Denny's "clean" blood. That is until Denny's dad, and his blood sample, turn up deceased. Denys has been faking his tests for months and passing along HIV to many a co-star. As if that chain of events isn't ridiculous (although realistic) enough, Denys' mother, Olive (the awe-inspiring Stockard Channing), decides to practice life-insurance fraud (I guess) by infecting herself. It is ultimately a disgusting story about the lengths one family goes to provide for themselves.
Channing ranges from an overworked mother, to crazily grief-stricken widow (a widow to her husband as well as her son's innocence), to hussy, and finally to a high-rolling, convertible driving woman of comfort without showing the slightest seam of transition. Ashmore, on the other hand, is perfectly respectable as the dimwitted, overage teenage dunce, but lacks depth considering the gravity of his actions -- seeming more suited to pulling pranks on American Pie.
The scenery in this story is not of note, but that is the point; this could be any hard-scrabble, down-on-their-luck family, anywhere.
The final tale, set in South Africa, stars the sleepy-eyed Chlöe Sevigny as Clara, a nun on a mission trip; her fellow nuns include actresses Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy) and Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck). They soon realize their soul-saving mission is much more of a physical caretaking one, as many of the members of the Pondu tribe are leaving behind orphans when they succumb to AIDS. Industry in the area is ruled by Mr. Hallyday's plantation. Hallyday (South African star Ian Roberts) is both corrupt and caring, excellently playing the role of provider and ruler for the tribe. He makes an unfortunate deal with Clara, which provides for the Pondu orphans, but only continues his powerfully corrupt dominance.
Both Sevigny and Oh were odd casting choices, better suited to leather jackets than flowing whites. Oh overplayed her role, throwing in light-hearted "whees" and soulful looks whenever possible, but not offering her character any believability. Sevigny does bring a certain depth to her character, and is especially good when facing her defilement, but overall is a bit one-dimensional, despite everything occurring to her and around her. Dukakis, we realize at the end, is the voice of the occasionally absent narrator whose soothing voice filled in the spiritual and philosophic holes of the movie. But as an in-the-flesh nun, who ultimately serves as a martyr for her cause, she is bland at best.
The Special Features, which includes the mini-documentaries "China AIDS Initiative" and "House on Fire: Aids in America" effectively coordinate the message and meaning behind 3 Needles -- that preventing AIDS is about education and diligence. It is a fitting conclusion to a film so steeped in symbolism and teachings.
The message of 3 Needles is one for educated people. It is a message clouded by morality and philosophy. Hidden meanings abound and this is not an in-your-face look at the realities behind AIDS. This is a more convoluted tale, one which is not easily decipherable by the audiences that probably most need to learn the lesson.
There were also a few cultural slips, in my opinion, such as when Sam's daughter says, "This tastes like crap."
If you can handle the brutal truth about AIDS, poverty, and the many levels of humanity and morality this movie is for you.
Guilty. You very well may be a Saint right now, but you also may be the very opposite. This film portrays a thousand unwitting Saints, and several, very real, devils.
Review content copyright © 2007 Katie Herrell; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted scenes
* "China AIDS Initiative with Magic Johnson and Yao Ming"
* "House on Fire: AIDS in America"
* Photo Gallery
* TV Promo
* Official Site