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3 Needles

An Unholy Trinity

Coinciding with World AIDS Day, Thom Fitzgerald's cinematic triptych presents three disparate yet complementary stories about how this indiscriminate disease afflicts individuals, communities, and societies on three continents in very different ways. Based on writer/director Fitzgerald's experiences in China, South Africa, and the West (specifically Canada), 3 Needles portrays the AIDS pandemic on a scale that is alternately intimate and sweeping. As a result, the film is irresistibly watchable and ultimately disturbing.

Like the cycle of violence that besets the Middle East, AIDS weaves its way into humanity's existence -- affecting our global society forever. What is a "managed disease" in some parts of the world barely has a name in others. These stories begin innocently enough, but they don't remain so. Three nuns (Olympia Dukakis, Sandra Oh, and ChloŽ Sevigny) from the order of the Mission for the Propagation of the Faithful -- sent to South Africa to save souls -- find themselves confronted by more personally challenging situations that test the boundaries of their narrowly defined mission.

A continent away, a resourceful entrepreneur (Lucy Liu) sets up a mobile blood collection service in the remote village of Tonghua, China, and pays locals for their blood. Soon a farmer (Tanabadee Chokpikultong) realizes that his community is slowly dying of a nameless illness -- even his seven-year-old daughter (Yoyo Cheukaew). Naturally, he finds resistance among the authorities to investigate the matter further.

Meanwhile, a second-rate porn star (Shawn Ashmore) hides his HIV status from his parents and coworkers, only to find his mother (Stockard Channing) sacrificing her own health in order to provide for their well-being. Individually these stories hold one's interest fairly well because unexpected things keep occurring. At times, however, the balance tips towards the melodramatic side -- if not because of the acting, then by the plot. The film's climactic violence dampens the spirit that audiences would otherwise have about the subject matter.

Even so, this is no Hallmark Special you'll ever see on television -- even though it looks like one. The film's photography is quite stunning, thanks to cinematographer Thomas M. Harting, whose work in this film has already won him an award at the Atlantic Film Festival.

On the surface, 3 Needles combines three dramas about the effects of AIDS, characterizing what it calls Buddhist, Christian, and pagan responses to it. Underneath, however, other factors influence the disease's voracious spread -- not just ignorance and superstition but unhygienic rituals and religious beliefs aimed at helping souls, not bodies.

Fitzgerald's ambitious script uses religion as a central theme. People around the world have different relationships with "God"; likewise they interact with AIDS differently. This is somewhat of a stretch because you could apply this notion to war, love, poverty, and so on. In the end, AIDS spreads through a complex web of connections among unrelated people, resulting in unexpected kindness, remarkable bravery, calculated motives, and unmitigated violence.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars