In a lovely little film called The Hanging Garden, writer/director Thom Fitzgerald gave us a character at three stages of life, growing and changing and crashing into old conceptions of himself. The three Williams, at different ages, even appeared on screen simultaneously. Fitzgerald's latest triptych is more subtle in the way it sews together its three-paneled story, but no less successful. 3 Needles is a clever anthology, spaced across three continents, in which AIDS and money are aggressively juxtaposed against each other until the point -- the new possibility of bartering with the disease -- emerges. One third of the story takes place in a French-Canadian household, where Olive, played by Stockard Channing, purposefully contracts HIV as part of a bold insurance swindle. A world away, in Southern Africa, a cynical Afrikaans plantation owner called Hallyday (Ian Roberts) invests in AZT because 70 percent of his workers are positive, and the drug will keep them alive and working longer. In rural China, a blood smuggler called Jin (Lucy Liu) sells tainted blood to start-up hospitals that are not yet sophisticated enough to reject her.

Each story has the low-energy pitch of a routine business meeting where everyone knows more or less how things will shake out. Nearly every scene is shot inside a blah-colored office or a workplace -- we even see some bored-looking porn workers greet a nurse who arrives to give them a routine HIV test. Ten years ago, a movie with AIDS as its central subject would have found it necessary to deal with the horror of lesions, hospital goodbyes and grief. This film seeks to rob AIDS of its plague-mystique and drag it into the realm of the workaday and the banal, where most other aspects of a managed life reside. It mostly succeeds, although a burdensome narration (can you name the last movie that was actually improved by a narration?) and a remarkably aimless ending hurt the project a great deal. The African story in particular seems to have been considered a weak link -- it shows many signs of editing-suite triage. Thankfully, the other two parts of the film are good enough to make up for it.

Most of Fitzgerald's energy is devoted to the French-Canadian third of the film, which makes sense, seeing as he's Canadian. Shawn Ashmore plays a 20-something porn actor who, when we first meet him, is at work on the set, engaging in some kind of Thanksgiving-themed porn sequence in which he is a pilgrim who's about to bang Pocahontas. Since I know nothing about the Canadian porn market, that sounds pretty reasonable to me. An Asian porn star called Spunky Chin is also involved, somehow. We eventually learn that Ashmore is hiding his positive-status from his co-workers, a dilemma that will eventually see him out of work and unable to contribute to the feeding and care of his invalid father. The money troubles prompt his unstable mother, Olive, to cook up an insurance fraud that will put the family on easy street. As part of the scam, she has to intentionally contract HIV, which she does, in what has to be the most blood-curdling, random sex scene in recent cinema.

Although nothing else in the film quite compares to that moment, each vignette contains its share of carefully constructed imagery. In the Chinese segment, we first learn of the occupation of Liu's Jin when her vehicle is searched by Chinese authorities and a tall box is jerked from the vehicle and shot at after she refuses to unlock it. The blood that immediately gushes from the holes makes us think she is some kind of people trafficker who has just gotten her clients killed, but it turns out to be all blood -- big bags of blood, medically packaged for transport. The police dump the unlicensed blood bags on the ground and stomp them all until they are drenched up to their legs, creating a bloody mess. Only after several people she's come in contact with begin reporting symptoms of 'the flu' -- the film notes that in rural China, AIDS is commonly without a name -- does Jin begin to put it all together and realize that her blood may be causing the problems.

It's been told to me that 3 Needles exists -- or existed, earlier in the year -- in a drastically different version that intertwined the three stories tightly together, Paul Thomas Anderson style, instead of the side-by-side anthology style that exists in the version currently being screened for the press. If that's the case, it may help to explain why, as a stand-alone piece, the African third of the film feels strangely out-of-joint. Sandra Oh, who is something of a name actress, appears on-screen throughout this segment as a nun but has almost zero dialogue. Most of the segment follows the perspective of another nun, played by Chloe Sevigny. Still, these are minor quibbles. All together, the film is a solid success. It takes what is perhaps one of the most politicized subjects imaginable and swiftly evades any easy characterizations through solid, credible storytelling. It resists any urge to be preachy, obvious or overbearing -- that would have been the kiss of death in a film with such a hot-potato topic -- and gives us some compelling and touching portraits of peculiar, post-modern suffering. Like most good films, it's about the conflict between love and money, and everything else is just details.