A number of films in recent years have been playing with the conventions of film noir. Starfish Hotel, which screened at Fantastic Fest this week, uses those conventions to turn a mystery inside-out, but unfortunately isn't nearly as suspenseful or interesting as its predecessors.

Arisu (Koichi Sato) is a big fan of mystery novels, particularly the Darkworld series written by Jo Kuroda (Kazuyoshi Kushida). Arisu has a secret life of his own: he's been cheating on his wife with the lovely Kayoko (Kiki), whom he met at the faded and remote Starfish Hotel. Suddenly Arisu is involved in a deeper and more horrible mystery: his wife Chisato goes missing, and is rumored to be working in a Tokyo brothel. A seedy-looking guy in a rabbit suit (yes, very much like Donnie Darko) keeps popping out of nowhere to drop hints about the mystery. The guy in the rabbit suit says he's advertising the newest book in the Darkworld series ... or is he really from the Darkworld himself? Is Arisu's life turning into a Kuroda mystery novel? Flashbacks and dream sequences further blur the lines between fantasy and reality, both for the characters and the audience.
The film combines Japanese and English cultural elements: the Starfish Hotel isn't a translated name, but is in English, as is the name of the brothel, Wonderland. Director John Williams (Firefly Dreams) slips in a number of mystery-film references: Arisu wears a trenchcoat that Columbo could have left behind (or Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye). Unfortunately, some of the film's references to other movies are too overt and distracting, particularly the rabbit suit. I kept expecting Jake Gyllenhaal to turn up. Certain story elements also reminded me of last year's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The ultra-meta movie/book-within-a-movie device has been used a lot lately -- I'd be interested to see how this movie compares with the upcoming Stranger Than Fiction.

Starfish Hotel uses setting to great effect here: one look at Arisu's starkly modern apartment with its cold, harsh lighting tells us everything we need to know about his marriage. The Starfish Hotel itself is dark and shadowy but warmly lit. Kayoko and Arisu also rendezvous in a snowy cabin and in a dark damp tunnel. You get the idea.

The characters, however, aren't strongly drawn -- they seemed more like archetypes or plot devices than real people. I never quite understood their motivation. The explanation at the end for the mysterious happenings didn't quite make sense: would someone truly go to so much trouble, even killing people, for that particular reason? I didn't buy it.

Unfortunately, Starfish Hotel took far too long to end, actually going through several endings with various revelations ... but with an ambiguous final scene. Because of the interminable ending and the overall deliberate pacing, the movie felt long even with a running time of 98 minutes. Starfish Hotel looked beautiful -- if you want to see it, try to catch it in a theater -- but ultimately was unsatisfying.