Review: The Donut King

Tales of immigrants making it big in their adopted countries are irresistible, regardless of which side of the political divide you find yourself. Liberals appreciate the idea that new blood invigorates society and thus hold such stories up as examples of how immigration is vital; while conservatives like to point to these individuals as the exceptions that prove the rule, meaning that immigration needs to be tightly controlled. The biography of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy is tailor made for this kind of dichotomy, though his tale is so extraordinary that you’d be hard pressed to find any sort of correlative.

Just the results of Ngoy’s enterprising spirit are enough to justify a documentary like this. He arrived in California in the mid-70s with his family after barely escaping the clutches of the Khmer Rouge; started a donut shop from scratch and in a few years had expanded his business to a dozen or so successful stores; became a millionaire in the process; and, most significantly, generated other Cambodian immigrant entrepreneurs through his mentorship. By the 1990s, 80 percent of the donut shops in California were owned by Cambodian immigrants or their children. Of course, the skeptic might wonder what makes donut shops so special, but when Ngoy started out, the market was controlled by either chains, or local mom-and-pop operations whose ambitions never extended beyond one store. And while Ngoy did come up with ideas that seemed to strike a marketable chord—a wider variety of flavors but focus on the classics, pink boxes instead of white ones—the main source of his success was an attitude that treated both customers and employees with respect and gratitude. It’s almost sickening how many tributes the guy draws during the course of the movie. 

Director Alice Gu knows all the clever tricks that documentarists use nowadays to make their movies less stodgy and more like a collection of internet memes—the animated sequences, the wacky montages, the sound bites squooshed up against one another—but while the flow is effortless and the message comes through loud and clear, the dramatic arc feels a bit truncated, because two-thirds of the way through she drops a bomb by saying that Ngoy ended up bankrupt and, for the most part, disgraced. Uncle Ted, as everyone calls him, had personal problems that he could handle until he couldn’t, and Gu never attempts to explain why they happened, only how. It’s as if she didn’t want to participate in this great man’s humiliation, but it seems like such an integral part of this story, if only for its cautionary aspect, that in the end you may feel short-changed. Instead, she fills the final half hour or so with other feel-good stories of Cambodians who took what they needed from Ngoy’s failed empire (he ended up losing everything, including his family) and carried it further. In many ways, The Donut King may be the most American story of the century, but it’s still incomplete.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

The Donut King home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 TDK Documentary, LLC

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