If you want to know why the human race hasn't banded together to battle the AIDS epidemic, then you should see 3 Needles. The root causes of the virus's basically unchecked spread are economic. There is money to be made in blood and there are people ruthless enough, thoughtless enough and careless enough to make it. The three needles of the title are located in a rural Chinese village, Montreal's porn industry and a South African plantation, and are (inexplicably) divided by religion -- Buddhist, Catholic and Pagan.
The film opens at a distance. An African coming of age ceremony culminates with the ritual circumcision of a group of young men. The first blood is spilled. From there we move to the "Buddhists," following Ping (Lucy Liu), a young woman who travels rural China, setting up clinics in small villages to collect blood for the black market. When she turns away a young man who has the sniffles, he volunteers his daughters arm, selling her blood weekly and investing the money in his small rice farm. After awhile people in the village begin to get sick and Ping closes down the clinic and moves on. It isn't the first time this has happened. Ping and her husband are like vampires, first creating villages of the undead and then whole populations of the dead. The final blow to the small community is delivered by the government when it is finally moved to investigate the outbreak. While giving blood paid $5, testing costs $10.
In the "Catholic" section of the film, porn actor Denys (Shawn Ashmore) fears he has HIV and begins faking his tests. In order to maintain the health of their actors, the porn industry has mandated testing every two weeks. Denys ends up infecting his colleagues and devastating the Montreal porn industry. Once his mother (Stockard Channing) discovers her son's situation, she decides to game the insurance industry to get enough money to insure a secure future for her son.
In Africa, among the "Pagans," a zealous nun (Chloe Sevigny) attempts to care for the ill (and bring them to God before it's too late), while raising a group of children orphaned by the disease, with the help of a wealthy plantation owner. Her faith is tested when she discovers that her young charges are trafficking in dirty needles.
The disease is too insidious. The connections between the spread of HIV and the economic conditions of those living with it are too immense to face head on. 3 Needles is a beautifully crafted and heartfelt film, but watching it is almost like an endurance test. You know that an ugly truth lies behind every statistic, but it is difficult to see how mundane that ugliness really is, how a basic element of humanity plays such a large role in the spread of the disease. It would be nice to believe that these stories are about ignorance, but they are not. Each character is willing to sacrifice the next in order to claim a small, temporary financial reward. The problem is they know it's temporary. They know a price will be paid and are ready to trade their own future, the futures of their neighbors and the futures of whole populations just to ease the discomfort of the present.
What the religious distinctions mean to the film, Buddhist vs. Catholic vs. Pagan, are puzzling to me as all populations behave similarly, trading dirty needles to make a quick buck. And the tedious Olympia Dukakis voice-over does little to explain. 3 Needles casts a cold, hard eye on the plain truths behind HIV and AIDS, but it does so beautifully. What makes the film striking is how blunt (and almost without hope) it is. It's not easy to see such a passionately made portrait of the despicable. It's dark, but worth seeing if only to confirm your worst fears.
3 Needles opens December 1, 2006.