Thom Fitzgerald’s “3 Needles” bowed at Toronto last year to lukewarm response in a producer-mandated edit that awkwardly intercut its three separate globe-spanning stories about the ongoing AIDS pandemic. The U.S. release, however, is a new director’s cut that arranges the narrative panels consecutively. Result is still flawed, but greatly improved in the coherency of individual parts and as an engrossing whole. Aptly launched Stateside on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, the sprawling drama’s arthouse pull should benefit from critical support and tie-in educational efforts.
Triptych of tales takes place on three continents. Lucy Liu plays a bogus mainland China “government” solicitor of blood donations later sold on the black market; she doesn’t realize until too late that HIV-tainted equipment is killing off entire villages, including farmer Tanabadee Chokpikultong’s.
In South Africa, missionary nuns Chloe Sevigny, Olympia Dukakis and Sandra Oh struggle against the rampant local spread of the infection. In Montreal, hetero porn actor Shawn Ashmore conceals his HIV-positive status in order to keep working.
Latter story was by far the weakest link in the original edit, haltingly developed and dropped entirely for long stretches of the pic’s run-time. While still the most contrived and least potent seg, it’s much stronger here, with a clear arc and some notable added scenes. (One whopper, more lurid than credible, finds Stockard Channing’s mother character resorting to degrading acts in order to match her son’s HIV status and pull off a life-insurance scam.)
Elsewhere, a cleaner editorial approach manages a tenor both calm and hurtling, telling complex stories with admirable economy. Incidents that seemed jarringly deprived of context are now explicable, though motivation behind a murderous attack in the South Africa saga remains cloudy. Dukakis’ voiceover narration, which came off as an attempt to patch narrative holes, grates less now, and the respectful incisiveness of Fitzgerald’s take on drastically different cultures is heightened. Improved package also sheds a brighter light on the exceptional performances of Sevigny and (in a Mandarin-language role) Liu.
Despite restoration of some previously cut scenes, pic is actually one minute shorter than Toronto-preemed and Canada-distributed version — helmer has judiciously trimmed bits here and there. Thomas M. Harting’s impressive location lensing remains the highlight of the polished package.