Keep in mind that the title of this film is 3 Needles and that the movie is about HIV. It seems that in most movies I’ve seen that deal with HIV (with the exception of Trainspotting), the person becomes HIV+ by having unprotected sex or blood transfusions (if it’s a straight person) or something like that. It also seems that whenever HIV is discussed in relation to the “developing nations,” one always assumes that HIV is contracted via sex and/or circumcision/genital mutilation. Sure, all of those issues are addressed in 3 Needles, but needles remain the symbolic object-of-fear.
3 Needles is broken into three stories: one story about an HIV outbreak in a small village in China, one story about a porn actor who has HIV and his mother’s attempt to identify with him, and one story about nuns trying to save the souls of people with HIV in South Africa.
The first story is a little confusing at first. It opens with a woman (Lucy Liu driving a van down a dirt road. She is stopped by a group of guys dressed in military clothes. She claims that she is transporting rape seeds. The soldiers demand that they inspect her cargo. Finally they remove a box that looks like a casket. They ask what is in it; she insists that it is just rape seeds. The commander tells the soldiers to shoot it to “give it some air.” Blood spills out. At this point, I think the audience is supposed to believe that she is smuggling a person for some reason or another. When the soldiers open the box, however, bags of blood spill out.
We then learn, though a flashback, that the woman’s job is to set up blood collection camps in small villages. The story then starts following a man named Tong (Tanabadee Chokpikultong). Tong takes his wife and daughter to the blood collection center so that they can get more money. Tong, however, has the flu and since he appears sick, the people at the blood center refuse to take his blood. They also refuse to take his daughter’s blood since she has not yet turned twelve.
A week later (the center allows people to donate blood every week) they still do not let Tong give his blood. He does, however, convince them to take his daughter’s blood, joking with them that she is now twelve.
Tong uses the daughter from his daughter’s blood donation to buy a water buffalo (which she gets to claim is hers). The next time Tong and his daughter go to give blood, the man still refuses to take Tong’s blood, but he does give him a job to deliver the bags of blood to the woman in the van’s house. When he arrives there, he sees that everyone is sick, but makes the delivery anyway.
Shortly thereafter, the daughter becomes sick, as does Tong’s wife. We see that other villagers are sick, too. Not much time passes before Tong’s entire family is dead.
After the provincial authorities refuse to investigate the incident, Tong goes to a larger governmental office. There, he convinces them that they need to find out what happened and they return to Tong’s small village. It doesn’t take much time for the doctors to realize that everyone has become infected with HIV. Tong explains to the commander (from earlier) that the woman in the van set up a blood donation center.
At the end of the first part, the soldiers help the family-less Tong harvest his rice, which Tong shares with the rest of the sick villagers since they are unable to produce food on their own.
The second story is, by far, the darkest. It starts off with a young man in his early 20s (Shawn Ashmore) taking a sample of blood from his sick and dying father. Then we see him on the scene of a porn film saying it’s okay if he doesn’t use a rubber since he was just tested. I think it’s worthwhile to note that he is straight and acting in a straight porn film (that surprised me). On the day of his next HIV test he runs into a crying girl as he enters the clinic — it turns out he’s acted with her before, and now she is HIV+.
Ultimately, of course, others become infected and his father dies and the doctors confirm that he, too, is HIV+. His family doesn’t have much money, and with the recent loss of her husband, the actor’s mother (Stockard Channing) doesn’t know what to do. She goes to a support group and overhears a gay guy talk about how he was always afraid and feeling anxious about acquiring HIV, so he goes out and intentionally meets guys who will infect him (which is called “chasing”).
It seems that this gives the mother an idea and she goes and takes out a life insurance policy. She has a physical to prove that she is healthy, and then goes to stand outside one of the HIV support groups. She meets a guy there who she brings to a strip club, gets drunk, and seduces. When they are about to have sex, he insists that they use a condom. She hesitates, and then bites it so that it’s ineffective. He fucks her. She gets tested. She is still HIV-.
Discouraged by her failed attempt, she starts going through her son’s stuff. She finds the needle that he used to use to extract blood from his father (so that he could fake the test). That night, while he is sleeping, she takes a sample of his blood. In a scene that definitely had everyone in the theatre cringing, she even licks some of the leftover blood off of his arm after she removes the needle. More than shocking or disgusting, I found the scene to be extremely emotional and sad.
Presumably by injecting herself with his blood, at her next visit to the doctor she is informed that she is indeed HIV+. She cashes out the life insurance, and she and her son live a life of luxury. In the very last scene of their vignette, the actor and his mother run into one of the porn actresses who he infected. She accosts him for doing what he did (knowingly infect others, or, at the very least, not take a truthful HIV test) and seems to imply that what he did should be illegal.
If the second story is the darkest, then the third story is the most controversial. It follows three nuns (Olympia Dukakis, Sandra Oh, and ChloÃ« Sevigny) who go to South Africa in order to save the souls of people with HIV so that they don’t go to hell but go to purgatory or heaven instead.
The plot for part three is a little more complicated and has more characters, so rather than summarize it, I wish to comment on the rather harsh critique of Christianity.
One of the commonly-held myths in Africa is that if a person who has HIV has sex with a virgin, the virus is passed on to the virgin and the person with HIV is cured. Of course, the presence of Catholic missionaries in Africa who promote abstinence until marriage (i.e. preserve virginity) and condemn the use of birth control/contraception only exacerbates the problem… but 3 Needles goes a step farther and draws a parallel between the Virgin Mary and HIV.
The idea goes like this: God took the sins of humanity and put them into the Virgin Mary so that she could have Jesus in order to repent those sins. Likewise, the African myth that if you put sin qua HIV into someone, that sin qua HIV will transfer into that other body, which can then be redeemed. At the end of part three, one of the nuns is raped. She says something to the effect of, “How can I blame him? I spend my nights praying to a virgin, too.”
I, for one, thought that this was a rather bold statement. If I’m reading the film correctly, the filmmakers are possibly saying that those who criticize the efforts of people in Africa to “denounce the myth” but at the same time believe in a similar Christian myth are being hypocrites. It’s not that the logical argument in either situation makes sense, but the structure of the argument/idea is the same. And in both situations, the fetishizing of virginity has harmful consequences.
As for the appearance of a needle in the third story, toward the end one of the nuns follows some kids who collected the green biohazard disposal container from the landfill. The kids take the container to the back of a bar, where the nun sees the kids cleaning the needles with a towel then repackaging the needles. It turns out that all of the needles that the doctors had been using to test the people were in fact dirty contaminated needles in the first place, and that the doctors may in fact be infecting the very people they are trying to test/save.
What I really liked about this movie was that it definitely took great lengths to de-stigmatize an HIV infection. Rather than suggesting that HIV is the result of overindulgent behavior (promiscuous sex, drug use, etc.), HIV in fact is more of a result of human desperation and greed at the hands of others.
At the closing of the movie, one of the nuns makes a comment along the lines of, “When humans have this great enemy why can’t we band together to fight it? Well, I think it’s you, God, who prevents us. Or, at least, the ways people believe in you.” The film depicts how a blind faith in Buddha, Christian God, and African mythology are very dangerous beliefs that perpetuate the spread of HIV in various communities.
I gave the movie four starts. It could very easily have been a five-star movie, but the first story was confusing at first and the second part felt too short while the third part felt too long.