Review by Sean Boelman
Tying together one of the most popular pastries in existence and one of the most pressing political issues facing the country today, The Donut King is arguably one of the most effective explorations of the American Dream to date. Thanks to a fascinating story told in a thoroughly entertaining manner, this is an early frontrunner to be among the year’s best documentaries.
The film tells the story of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy and how he built an empire of donut shops run by other immigrants living in California. As with any story of someone pursuing the American Dream, there are ups and downs in Ngoy’s story, and the viewer is brought along for the ride as Ngoy and people close to him relay the cautionary tale of his rise and fall from grace.
Director Alice Gu does a wonderful job of telling Ngoy’s story in a way that has tremendous respect for him but still allows the audience to learn from his mistakes. Although the title would suggest otherwise, Gu’s movie doesn’t hold its subject on a pedestal, but uses his story as a symbol of how hard work can pay off.
However, even beyond this being a tale of an immigrant being able to achieve great success through his ambition, this film provides some timely commentary on some of the most important issues of the time in which this story occurred and now. The movie also explores some of the racism that Ngoy had to overcome to achieve success, a discussion which couldn’t have come at a better time with xenophobia tightening its grip over the country.
Furthermore, the film takes a look at the role of small business in America. A significant portion of the movie addresses how Ngoy’s empire ultimately fell as the result of the increasing influence of large corporations in consumer decision-making. Although some improvements have been made since the collapse of Ngoy’s kingdom, the chances of someone reaching that level of success are slim in this day and age.
That said, even though there are a lot of political aspects to this story (including a portion that explores the Khmer Rouge — the reason why Ngoy was forced to flee his homeland), it’s also an entertaining documentary for anyone who cares about food. And since very few people seem to dislike donuts, this film is sure to have plenty of fans.
Of course, Gu (who also served as cinematographer on the movie) includes some scrumptious shots of the eponymous delicacy being cooked and served, but beyond that, the film is simply well-made. Gu seamlessly blends archive footage and interviews with some added artistic flourishes to create a narrative that moves along at an excellent pace.
The Donut King offers a well-told and intriguing story that makes this a documentary that needs to be seen. With plenty of storytelling talent on display (Ridley Scott executive produced the movie, giving his seal of approval to Gu), this is the type of crowd-pleasing documentary that is sure to be a hit.
The Donut King was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.