Review of “Clifton Hill” at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF)3 min read

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Clifton Hill centers on pathological liar Abby’s return to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death, and follows her obsessive quest to solve the mystery behind a potential kidnapping she witnessed as a child. 

The film is Toronto-based filmmaker Albert Shin’s third feature, drawn (according to a Now Toronto article) from more personal events than 2014’s In Her Place. Shin’s parents, South Korean transplants, owned and operated the Niagara Gateway Motel near Clifton Hill during much of his childhood. He spent countless weekends visiting Niagara Falls, and on one occasion saw a man beat a young boy into the trunk of a car and drive off. Abby (played by Sense8’s Tuppence Middleton) observes a similar, though embellished event as a child in the film’s prologue. It’s from this startling memory that adult Abby embarks on an adventure into Niagara Falls’s sordid underbelly. 

Billed as dramatic thriller and tribute to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s surprisingly difficult to take Clifton Hill seriously. Kidnapping, death, and tense violin tremolo initially set the correct tone, but the story devolves into increasing pulp as secrets unravel. Perhaps Shin and co-writer James Schultz weren’t quite sure what they were trying to accomplish.

One thing is certain: duplicity courses through the film. This is most apparent in Niagara Falls’s two identities as glitzy tourist attraction and corrupt, single-industry small town.

“The haunted houses aren’t actually haunted, and the funhouses aren’t actually fun … they even turn down the falls,” Abby tells officer Singh (Andy McQueen) in an early scene.

While a promising start, this conceit stagnates and returns in winking reminders that nothing is as it seems.

One big question also stays unanswered: why would a serial fibber suddenly demand the truth? After leaving behind a troubled past, which includes defrauding a community in New Mexico, Abby grows increasingly brazen as the film progresses. At one point, she steals her sister’s passport and enters the U.S. to coerce a couple into talking. On her way back into Canada, she’s caught and forced to acknowledge her criminal history in front of family. If this scene aims to evoke empathy, it fails. Abby’s tearful admission feels more like manipulation given what we’ve seen so far.

Many of the film’s nefarious characters are similarly one-dimensional. Local scion and property developer Charlie Lake fits the “bad guy” archetype to a T, and supporting villain Bev Mole appears cut from the pages of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s as if the film flips a switch midpoint and piles on comedic kitsch – but it’s delightful! In fact, one gets the impression that Shin and Schultz actually missed out on a great opportunity to commit to overtly campy neo-noir homage.

There are further redeeming qualities. Filmmaker David Cronenberg makes an appearance as the wonderfully eccentric town historian Walter Bell, and Marie-Josée Croze lends her skills as one of the magical Magnificent Moulins. Plus, there’s a becoming twist at the end.

Like one of Clifton Hill’s carnival funhouses, the film is a very entertaining (if effervescent) 1 hour and 40 minutes.

VIFF 2019 kicks off this Thursday, September 26. Catch Clifton Hill at International Village 10 on Wednesday, October 2 at 6:30 PM, or Friday, October 4 at 4:15 PM.

Director: Albert Shin

Country of Origin: Canada

Year: 2019

Stars: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg, Eric Johnson, Marie-Josée Croze

Kendra Ellis is Literary Editor at Ricepaper Magazine.  She is a Korean adoptee and transplant from Seattle with a background in the disparate fields of comparative literature and computer science. When not buried nose-first in a text, she can be found hunched over a keyboard trying to make a computer do useful and/or delightful things.

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