TORONTO — Things are not as they appear in the twisty Niagara Falls-set thriller "Disappearance at Clifton Hill," in which a decades-old mystery lures a prodigal daughter home to exorcise old demons.
British actress Tuppence Middleton stars as a pathological liar named Abby who returns to her hometown of Niagara Falls, Ont., when her mother dies, only to become entangled in the murky memory of a kidnapping she believes she witnessed as a child.
It's quickly apparent that the boundary between truth and deceit is as turbulent as the churning waters that draw millions to the tourist hub each year, and Abby is soon out of her depth as she tries to piece together disjointed fragments of her past, which include a strained relationship with her straitlaced sister, played by Toronto's Hannah Gross.
Middleton says she researched pathological liars while preparing to play Abby, who can't seem to stop herself from blurting out lies even as she tries to suss out the truth herself.
"I thought she was really strange and complex and I really sympathized with her. I read quite a lot about pathological liars before I did it and it's still such a misunderstood (thing). It's like a compulsive thing, yes, but it's also... like an addiction," says Middleton, whose other projects have included the Netflix series "Sense8."
While premiering the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, director and co-writer Albert Shin said several key elements come from his own childhood in Niagara Falls, where his South Korean parents settled and ran a motel, just like Abby's mother did.
It too, was located around the corner from the downtown promenade known as Clifton Hill — an ostentatious strip of chain restaurants, carnival-like attractions and kitschy souvenir shops competing for attention with the majestic falls.
And like Abby, Shin says he believes he may have witnessed a kidnapping as a boy.
"I'm not sure what I witnessed but it was sort of the genesis for this story of taking this repressed memory that I have and seeing (what would happen) if I had actually investigated further," says Shin, whose last film was the South Korean chamber drama "In Her Place."
"I wanted to make a movie, a cinematic film, that is very much a mystery — a film noir — and create a world that is sort of our world but slightly heightened, as well."
Abby should be clearing out her mom's dilapidated motel and preparing it for sale, but instead is compelled to identify the mysterious boy she believes she saw snatched from his hiding place in the woods decades ago.
She finds some help from a local historian and fellow conspiracy theorist named Walter, played by directing giant David Cronenberg, who furthers Abby's fanciful inclinations while injecting some comic relief to the dark tale.
Shin says he and his writing partner James Schultz did not write the part for Cronenberg, but he was encouraged to offer it to the sci-fi master.
"When we were trying to cast the part, his name was mentioned to me and I was like, 'Well, he's never going to do this, that's crazy,' but when we approached him he was so gracious and he really, really liked the part and he agreed to it right away," he says.
Middleton joked about having some anxiety in sharing scenes with the "Eastern Promises" and "Crash" director, wondering whether he'd slip into director-mode despite being enlisted to act.
"I expected (that) it'd be quite difficult to be on a set and not want to direct or say to me in a scene: 'That was great the way you did that,'" she chuckles during a separate round of interviews at TIFF in September.
"Even if he thought that, he didn't tell me, so I think he was very much just a fellow actor."
"Disappearance at Clifton Hill," which is also up for four Canadian Screen Awards in March, opens Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2020.