Though it’s fairly common for filmmakers to describe projects as personal or based on their actual lives, it’s exceedingly rare that those movies are thrillers. Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill, set in Niagara Falls, isn’t exactly autobiographical, and it isn’t exactly a thriller, either, but Shin nevertheless drew from his own life to tell this story.
A troubled young woman named Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to her hometown of Niagara Falls following the death of her mother. Abby and her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) have inherited their mother’s decrepit motel on the edge of Niagara Falls’ most touristic sector, but they have no real interest in running it. A tentative deal is struck with local real-estate magnate Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), but as Abby bides her time in town, she is consumed with a long-buried event from her childhood: she believes she witnessed a kidnapping. Obsessed with these resurfacing images, she seeks help from a local eccentric and amateur historian (David Cronenberg), who traces the kidnapping to local luminaries the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), a pair of married magicians who may have had something to do with the death of their son years before.
As clichéd as that old chestnut may sound, it’s hard to imagine Disappearance at Clifton Hill being set anywhere else but Niagara Falls; its peculiar, time-out-of-mind aura permeates every scene. Albert Shin grew up not too far from Niagara Falls, but his connection remains strong: his parents, Korean immigrants, ran a motel in town.
“It all came from the city itself,” explains Shin. “That was a big component in making sure that we actually shot the film there. It would have been easier to maybe shoot it in a different city, closer to Toronto, and pretend it’s Niagara Falls and cobble it together from B-roll footage of the Falls. It was really important for me that the city be a character, and not in a cliché sort of manner.
“I’m always inspired by a location in all of my films,” he continues. “When I’m writing something, it’s hard for me to just write down ‘Interior – Coffee Shop.’ It’s hard for me to imagine that coffee shop — I have to know what coffee shop that is and know why it’s in the film in a larger context instead of just being a placeholder. Niagara Falls is such an interesting and cinematic location that hasn’t really been taken advantage of — or represented, even — in movies. It’s such a location that’s right for cinema, in my mind. I was really excited to set the movie there, and since I have some history there as well, it made sense for me in a holistic manner.”
Like a lot of mysteries and thrillers, Disappearance at Clifton Hill weaves mental illness struggles into the fabric of the film, but unlike many movies in the genre, it doesn’t use it to shape the narrative. In other words, don’t expect one of the characters to be revealed to be a figment of the main character’s imagination 80 minutes in.
“I had a lot of conversations with our lead, Tuppence, about that,” says Shin. “No one’s gonna pretend this is some kind of clinical film about mental illness. But we also didn’t want it to feel like some kind of contrivance. It had to be part of the fabric of the person. What we wanted to do was create a sense of history that this character has with her mental illness, and a way to do it was to make it not showy. Everything she does is related to it, but it’s sort of an afterthought. She doesn’t think about it all the time. It’s not something that she’s grappling with. We wanted it to be in the shoulders as opposed to always in the face, where it’s always being projected. When certain revelations happen, it feels earned rather than cute or contrived.
“Some of it was about being a subjective film where you’re in the position of the person who is untrustworthy — an unreliable narrator,” he continues. “That makes it so that when certain revelations happen, you don’t remove yourself from that person. She hasn’t fixed herself and no one is fixing her.”
Though it was imperative to Shin that the film be shot in Niagara Falls, it turns out that the various local and political forces that needed to greenlight the shoot were less enthused.
“We were gonna shoot there come hell or high water,” says Shin. “I wasn’t going to pretend that Hamilton or some other city was Niagara Falls. I would’ve probably waited until an opportunity had presented itself to shoot it the right way. Clifton Hill is a big business district in Niagara Falls, and they’re very image-conscious, obviously. They were very concerned that the film would be depicting Clifton Hill in a negative light. This was all about them, in essence, controlling the narrative on how that area or that city was portrayed in the media. My argument for the film is that when my parents immigrated from Korea, they bought a motel in the sort of shadow of Clifton Hill. It was a motel very much like this one, in fact. That city is very, very important to me and my family’s history in this country. In a way, this is my love letter to Niagara Falls. Yeah, it’s not a postcard film of Niagara Falls, but it’s trying to make it cinematic, alluring, mysterious and dangerous — everything that a movie can do. It was my way of paying tribute to Niagara Falls, but I guess they didn’t take it that way!”
And, of course, the film features a rare acting appearance from David Cronenberg, who plays a scuba-diving podcaster who records out of the basement of his spaceship-shaped restaurant — an inspired bit of eccentricity that monopolized pretty much all of the discourse around the film (which was then titled simply Clifton Hill) when it premiered at TIFF last year.
“He’s getting a lot of attention and it’s very gratifying,” says Shin. “But I can’t sit here and pretend that I always wanted David Cronenberg to play the podcaster in my film! (laughs) I wouldn’t have been that presumptuous. But it was a role that was written in a way that I wanted someone to bring a certain history and context to the role itself. It had to be an older actor, as well, and it was hard to cast in order to fit all of those criteria. It was really coming down to the wire. We couldn’t find the right person, and it was getting closer and closer to the beginning of production.
“We just took a shot in the dark and sent the script to David. He read it immediately and said yes within hours. He was the easiest person to cast in a lot of ways. His first scene in the film is the first thing we shot in the movie! We met with him, went over the script, and a couple of days later we were throwing him in the middle of the Niagara River in a scuba suit!” ■
Disappearance at Clifton Hill opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 28. Watch the trailer below.
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