Thom Fitzgerald's "3 Needles" is surely the writer-director's most ambitious film to date, a sprawling three-episode epic exploring the spread of AIDS in different regions of the world. At times diffuse and discursive, it is nevertheless impressive, especially in its provocative depiction of the way sex and religion intersect in response to the outbreak of the disease in very different circumstances and cultures. At the same time, Fitzgerald's three stories suggest all that is so depressingly universal in the spread of AIDS: ignorance, poverty, superstition, indifference, exploitation and on and on.
In rural China the ruthless, pregnant Jin Ping (Lucy Liu) travels throughout the countryside in her white "Bloodmobile" paying peasants $5 for donations of blood, which she sells on the black market while her donors believe she is a government employee working to build up the nation's blood supply. The one farmer she turns down because he has the flu ultimately turns out to be his community's only survivor -- the rest becoming victims of Jin's unsterilized needles.
Meanwhile in Montreal, a self-enchanted young porn actor (Shawn Ashmore), facing an HIV test, extracts blood from his disabled, seriously ailing father (Aubert Pallascio), whose death inadvertently exposes his ruse. At this point the actor's doting, devout mother (Stockard Channing), a weary waitress, goes to jaw-dropping extremes to ensure her family's economic security. In contrast to the first and final episodes -- the last set in South Africa -- which possess a pastoral sweep, this vignette, set in a sophisticated First World city, is brisk and mordant, spiked with dark humor. It also affords Channing a fine opportunity to display her formidable resources as an actress.
The final sequence offers Chloe Sevigny similarly bold acting challenges as a young nun who, with colleagues played by Olympia Dukakis and Sandra Oh, is charged with converting to Christianity the many workers on a vast plantation dying of AIDS. In no time the nun becomes determined to obtain funds for medical supplies and treatment no matter what sacrifice it takes on her part. The ever-daring and shrewd Sevigny is convincing, but Dukakis, who also is heard as the film's largely redundant narrator, and Oh unfortunately have little to do.
Though not as coherent as it might be, "3 Needles," with its stunning cinematography by Thomas M. Harting, is never less than engaging and suggests powerfully the myriad reasons why AIDS, after a quarter of a century, remains so difficult to control and combat.
MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.