Lucy Liu, Shawn Ashmore, Stockard Channing, Chloë Sevigny, Olympia Dukakis
1.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
You can rationalize that “3 Needles” is a bargain – you get three stories for the price of one – but the price you pay is it’s three times as bad as your average one plot film. The first and most memorable story, subtitled “The Fortitude of the Buddha” is set in China, and takes its inspiration from recent history. In the 1990s scores of poor villagers in the Henan province volunteered for state-sponsored blood transfusions. The needles that were used to take the blood contaminated. Today, thousands of people in the province are dying from AIDS. In “3 Needles” a pregnant, waddling black-market blood dealer (a de-glammed Lucy Liu as Jin Ping), unknowingly starts an epidemic when she sells tainted blood. Jin Ping pays for her sins three times over: she’s raped by a group of military police, run ragged for money by her blood sucking boyfriend, and is forced to deliver her baby herself in a wheat field, biting the umbilical chord like a hungry tourist launching into a sausage at the San Gennaro Festival. (More about the symbolic wheat field in a sentence or two.) The plot shifts to a poor farmer who can’t give blood (a proud performance by Tanabadee Cjokpikultong as Tong Sam) because he has the flu. With an urgency for currency, Sam turns his beloved young daughter into a cottage industry for $5 a puncture. The daughter is like a moppet Shecky Greene, (or at least the subtitles maker her seem that way), spouting one liners that make her sound brighter than the adults:
Sam: It’s going to be a good season, good seed, good fertilizer, thanks to you.
Daughter: Good. I’m thinking of retiring soon.
As a result of his daughter’s sacrifice, Sam can grow the best crop of wheat in the region. When a mysterious illness begins to wipe out his village, having an abundant crop with no one to feed leaves Sam as hollow as the coffin that awaits his now sickly daughter. What Sam does with the crop is one of the movie’s few unpredictable and moving moments. The jokey ending, with Sam and the local head of the military police walking off into the sunset like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in “Casablanca” is a cheat, and may very well convert you to gluten free eating.
AIDS ain’t funny. And neither is “3 Needles” second feature, “The Passion of Christ,” although it tries to be. The story, set in Montreal, begins when porn star Denny (a wooden Shawn Ashmore, no pun intended), is tracked down on the set for an AIDS test. Knowing he’ll fail, he siphons blood from his seemingly slumbering father to serve as his own. Of course he’s caught when the doctor returns to the set and tells him his results in front of the cast and crew: “According to your blood sample, you’ve been dead for several hours.” Her husband’s death and her son’s unsuccessful deception gives Olive, an overworked waitress, the impetus to craft a fraudulent money-making scheme of her own that’s little more than suicide for money. (Olive is played by Stockard Channing, who should be above have to play the scene in a strip club where she dry humps a slovenly customer.) Long suffering Olive reaps the benefits of her pact with death – she now drives a sports car, has a high-toned lifestyle and financial security for her son. Denny gets what he deserves too in “Unlucky,” the feature’s tacked on, thuddingly serious addendum. Set in an expensive restaurant, “Unlucky” is all of a minute long, and consists of Denny’s on-screen porn partner, now a waitress (get the irony here?) telling him “We’ve all got it (AIDS) now. You killed me for eight hundred dollars.” Although making “The Passion of Christ” segment a dark comedy was a crass idea, ending it on such a bellicose low note makes even less sense.
After two bad endings, tra-la, tra-lee, it’s off to the third act, “The Innocence of Pagans,” which plops three nuns in South Africa. The three nuns are misplayed by Olympia Dukakis (Sister Hilde, playing the “Maude” of the ministry), Sandra Oh (Sister Mary, an Asian-American version of “The Flying Nun;” spunky and too risqué to be of the cloth) and Chloe Sevigny (Sister Clara, the naïve virgin sacrifice). Chloe Sevigny? A nun? Her last performance in a position of reverence was on her knees was in Vincent Gallo’s repulsive “The Brown Bunny.” The only person in the theater with a smile on his face before during or after that travesty was Gallo. Sevigny’s empty performance is another career blunder that will drive you to your knees.
The South African paradise lost may not be completely poverty stricken – there’s a nice beach for the doctor’s to frolic in and there’s Hallyday, the local plantation owner who comes around to play white father – but many of the locals are HIV positive. Hallyday (a smarmy Ian Roberts) has ulterior motive written all over his chiseled face when he offers to help Sister Clara in her mission to educate, convert and care for the locals. At first Sister Clara doesn’t give in, but you know she will. When Sister Clara surrenders what’s under her sacred robes, her expression is as blank as when she’s doing something she supposedly likes. You can blame the predictable script, but I’ll blame Sevigny, who thinks looking doe-eyed is acting. All those glamour photos of her on “Page Six” of the Post can’t hide the fact that Sevigny has the emotional range of a plastic Jesus. Never send an ex-model to do an acting job.
The rest of the acting ranges from adequate to invisible. Freckled Lucy Liu is unrecognizable with a belly the size of Chairman Mao and is saddled with subtitles that fail to adequately explain the plot. You won’t realize it right away because you still have to get stuck by two more painful needles, but Liu’s performance is the best in the film, (and she ain’t Anna May Wong). Olympia Dukakis’ dialogue as narrator is lyrical but draining, and would be better served edited out so the action can explain itself. Dukakis is even less effective as Sister Hilde; she simply appears from time to time to fret and dispense nunsense. Sandra Oh’s spunky Sister Mary is not given enough to do, although she does get to deliver an amusing observation while sampling the local barbecue: “This is so greasy. It’s like bacon on a stick, if you just ignore the hair sticking out of the skin. It’s kind of like a man’s beard. Feel that, it’s prickly.” Stockhard Channing’s accent needs work – she sounds like she watched “Fargo” thinking the action took place in Canada and then copied the character’s speech patterns for this film.
Thom Fitzgerald’s asleep-at-the-switch direction and the slap dash editing is equally suspect. The subtitles are clumsy and in some cases, flat out incorrect. In “The Passion of Christ” segment, characters bounce back and forth between French and English with no explanation. Even Stockhard Channing goes bi-lingual, and then never does it again.
“3 Needles” in one of those cinematically beautiful, dialogue challenged art house films that allows the message to overwhelm the plot. Subtlety is not the watchword here. It’s contrived and inappropriately flippant in spots that interrupt and derail the stories dramatic message. We get it. AIDS is still with us and should be a world-wide, rather than homegrown concern. ”3 Needles” is a well intentioned film, just like Jin Ping’s notion she’s helping her people by offering $5 a pop for their blood. But like Jin Ping’s logic, “3 Needles” is full of holes.