“Wars have their endings inside families.” –Cynthia Enloe

I was drafted in 1971 and stationed in Saigon as an Army entertainment specialist a year before the end of U.S. troop involvement in the Vietnam War. I became infatuated with a Vietnamese girl named Liên, aka Candy. Beguiling and seductive, Candy claimed she had supernatural powers and was possessed by the ghost of a Buddhist nun.

I found myself sliding down a rabbit hole into a strange world unlike anything I had ever experienced. Our romance scorched through the seasons until I received orders to return home. Claiming a previous American boyfriend had returned to Vietnam, Candy broke up with me, and I went home.

One of the two pictures I have of Candy.

Forty years later, as a filmmaker with an artist’s fellowship, I return to Vietnam in search of Candy. Why? Like a few million other Americans, in combat or not, I lost something in Vietnam; something like innocence, security, confidence. America’s sense of superiority got knocked down a few notches in this sliver of a country on the other side of the world. Plagued all my life by failed relationships, disappointments, and depression, I felt that maybe back in Vietnam I might recover that thing that was lost in the embrace of a strange and beautiful girl. Armed with only a couple of wallet-sized photos and a handful of scribbled addresses, I make enough progress to make a life-changing discovery: Candy may have given birth to my child. Suddenly the stakes go up. Somewhere in the world there might be a 40-year-old Amerasian searching for me.

The quest for Candy and my child takes me through the backroads of Vietnam and the alleys of Saigon to the Vietnamese-American communities of Houston and Biloxi, leading back to Vietnam a year later. Thwarted by false leads, my search dead-ends and I find myself falling in love again, this time with my 30-year-old informant. Her name is Quyên. Answering one of our newspaper ads, Quyên claimed that as a little girl she knew Candy. Now, she is a divorced mother of two. I meet her family at a funeral and our relationship begins. After a prolonged online engagement, we decide to marry and apply for a fiancé visa, the same visa I had once hoped would bring Candy to the states. Quyên and her two children, a 6-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, fly to the U.S. and squeeze into my tiny, subsidized apartment in Portland. Then things get complicated.


What crazy notion persuades me to believe that marriage to a woman half my age, of a different culture, language, and set of values, would not just simply implode? I don’t even own a car, much less the Lexus that Quyên would like to be driving around in. She dreams about opening a business, bringing her mother to the U.S. to take care of the kids, and someday returning to Vietnam bearing tales of economic triumph. For me, it seems that 40 years of experience has done nothing to increase my self-awareness. The guy who fell in love with Candy is the same guy who jumped into a hopeless relationship with Quyên.

Meanwhile, I continue searching for Candy, her child, and some answers. I try genetic testing. I try advertising in Vietnamese-American news outlets. I appear on a Vietnamese TV show. No Candy. No child.

My drawing of Candy asleep.

Ghost Money will be structured chronologically around two interwoven timelines. One is live-action and traces my search for Candy and the events that follow spanning ten years of life. We witness simultaneously the disintegration of my relationship with Quyên and the metamorphosis of my two stepchildren into Americanized teens. The other is animated and depicts my time in Vietnam in 1972. The narrative voice will be constructed from my spoken narration, letters home, and my responses to a hypnotist whom I hired to help me remember things. The last meditation will be narrated as though it were a letter written to Candy.

As in Stuff, my previous personal feature film, Ghost Money will build on a steady accumulation of detail to create a dense emotional resonance. The story arc will include unexpected turns that were surprises even to me as they happened. When I set out to make the film, I hoped I would find Candy, a predictably satisfying ending. But the journey has become much more complicated and a lot more interesting. While the literal goal of finding Candy may never be attained, the unstated goal—of finding some understanding, some truth or closure—has become this filmmaker’s obsession. Ghost Money will be a rich and thought-provoking look at a pivotal era in American history through the eyes of a 22-year-old soldier and his older—not too much wiser—self.

Quyên and her kids.

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