HIV/AIDS in South Africa
by Salim Karim
Three stories, 3 needles, what's the difference, it's a paste-up job however you look at it. Three short films assembled to be a meaningful whole by director Thom Fitzgerald may relate by way of each one dealing with an epidemic's disparate effects on the poor of different continents, but they don't quite coalesce into something greater than its parts. The bloodline leaks and, along with it, dramatic synthesis.
A brief prologue of South African boys going through the ritual of becoming men by circumcision (no, that close-up isn't included) is starkly visual what with their white makeup and stunning patterns in the forest, streams and plains. The narration going along with it by Olympia Dukakis sounds like an ad copy injection of lofty sentiments. This introductory episode relates to the third story.
Story I is about the black market on blood in mainland China during these times of deadly epidemic. Pregnant Jin Ping (Lucy Liu speaking darn convincing Mandarin) runs a mobile blood collection service out of her white van, a welcome but not altogether legal nor antiseptic enterprise. In fact, it's blatant smuggling and the illegality of it is evident when she's stopped by corrupt border agents who use her in their own service in exchange for not being arrested after they discover the content of her cargo. Allowed to continue, her operation is a huge success because of her payment of $5 for blood donations in poor communities.
Young farmer Tong Sam (Tanabadee Chokpikultong) is refused because of a cough but, passing his 10 year-old daughter as 12, sells her blood, using the income to plant a new crop and other improvements. The fly in the ointment of all this happiness and success is that the virus has found its way into the supply and the villagers have become very sick and Tong's daughter dies, setting him off on finding the culprits and make them face the consequences of their ineptitude. By this time, Ping is in the wind, having finally managed to flee from the bonds of her boss who is too sick to chase after her.
Story II brings us to Montreal, Canada (from which country the film derives) and a porn actor Denys (Shawn Ashmore) who has to undergo continual testing in order to ply his trade and contribute to the household where he has a dying father and weird mother Olive (Stockard Channing speaking a lot of French) who works as a waitress. Given to fantasizing different identities, his work takes him to contracting the disease, cheating on his test, and passing it on to his next co-star. His father dies and, facing severe money problems, mom hatches a scheme that pays off and puts her and her dying son on easy street.
Story III is the real movie and we're back where we started, in South Africa. Here, the tribes of the west coast are heathens in the eyes of the church, desperately in need of saving, that is, avoiding purgatory by adopting Christianity and accepting Jesus. For this task 3 white robed female missionaries show up one day, novice Sister Clara (Chloe Sevigny) and nuns sister Mary John (Sandra Oh with very little to do) and Sister Hilde (Dukakis, who provides the conscience element and the narration).
Devoted to a fault, and grossly alarmed by the level of superstition concerning disease and sex, their mission of mercy includes labor issues concerning the workers on Mr. Hallyday's (well-cast Ian Roberts) vast plantation. Seeing the wealthy Africaans man as a resource to tap for social benefit, Sister Clara soon learns that it isn't exactly charity that motivates his contributions. But, then, under the garb she's a wench and when the stakes to help the needy become high enough, even trashing her vows and her salvation become possibilities. Oh, how corrupting the coin of the realm.
But, salvation is apt in considering Fitzgerald's stories and the movie as a whole, which ranges from wildly innefectual to quite absorbing. The worst of the lot is the porn star plot which takes almost all of its length to make sense of. The China story offers a slightly greater level of clarity but still suffers from severe understatement. But the worst part is the consistent lack of sympathy for any of the characters. No one's campaigning for any of these losers' salvation, I assure you (except their agents and mothers and dependents, of course).
But, give me a little Sevigny and somehow the landscape of the heart and mind changes. This part of the trilogy contains the aspects of a movie and could have been deepened and stretched as a whole unto itself, for a much more satisfying experience. Dukakis' and Oh's roles are functional in the context, well enough played, but Sevigny's are special, as always, one of the most interesting actors around in these times of abundant casting resources. For me, her qualities were all the salvation I needed. On the other hand, Purgatory, here I come just for thinking about her!
~~ Jules Brenner