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[Note: In the wake of SXSW’s cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]
One of the timeliest stories of 2020, it turns out, is how the Cambodian refugee community took over the Southern California donut industry from the 1980s on. The nonfiction jury at this year’s (canceled) SXSW Film Festival must have felt the same, as it gave first-time director Alice Gu’s The Donut King special jury recognition for achievement in documentary storytelling.
Weaving together two histories hidden in plain sight, the film is a heartwarming yet three-dimensional portrait of a man who lifted hundreds of his shell-shocked countrymen out of poverty and despair, but was later consumed by his own maniacal ambition and zeal. At a time when the plights of refugees and immigrants have been necessarily shunted from the front page by the coronavirus (despite the greater vulnerability of these populations to contagion), Gu celebrates their potential and their perseverance, while never losing sight of their complicated humanity. The Donut King is a tale of the American Dream, but decidedly not one of a model minority.
The titular donut king is 77-year-old Ted Ngoy, who has attained mythic status among many Cambodian Americans in Los Angeles and Orange County since his arrival in the U.S. more than four decades ago. The sponsor of more than 100 refugee families, Ngoy is almost single-handedly responsible for his compatriots’ domination of the mom-and-pop donut shops in Southern California, of which 80 percent were owned by Cambodians by the mid-1990s.
It’s an improbable achievement, and each biographical detail that we get from Gu’s film underscores just how unlikely Ngoy’s entire life has been, from his innovation of carnation pink as the donut-box color to his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy and influential family as the son of an impoverished single mother (herself a Chinese migrant to Cambodia). You get the sense that a man with Ngoy’s restless enterprise and financial savvy would have been a runaway success at any place and time. But it was late 20th-century America that placed him in a unique position to help so many people — and then to ruin himself in spectacular fashion.
The spry, charming Ngoy makes for a surprisingly guileless presence despite his obvious wish to burnish his legacy. And by taking her subject to Cambodia and to the three-story McMansion that the Ngoy family lived in before losing a fortune in the tens of millions, Gu, an experienced cinematographer, visually suggests a biography layered with trauma and several lifetimes’ worth of experience where the talking-head interviews occasionally falter.
Though seldom traditionally gorgeous, The Donut King is strikingly inventive and image-centric, with animated sequences in place of (most) recreations and an unofficial tour of Southern California’s many immigrant-owned donut shops via skateboard. As soon as I finished the film, I wanted a dozen documentaries about inspirational but profoundly flawed immigrant leaders just like it. But that would be taking for granted the extraordinariness of Ngoy’s life story, as well as the thoughtfulness with which Gu crafts this accessible yet honest overview.
Gu’s efforts to deliver a peppy, music-driven documentary does make it occasionally difficult to understand Ngoy’s story within a larger context. Pertinent statistics are drowned out by an electronica score and the rattling of skateboard wheels in an early montage, and the film’s summary of the history of Cambodia as a battleground in the Vietnam War and the takeover of the Khmer Rouge thereafter might only make sense to those who come to the doc already knowledgeable about that period.
Ngoy declares that his relationship with donuts was love at first sight because they reminded him of nom kong, a Cambodian dessert. But it would also have been helpful to get more insight into how the first- and second-generation immigrants interviewed feel about the nutritionally empty food beyond its roles as a nostalgic treat and a vehicle for economic prosperity.
In a final segment, Gu chronicles how the American-raised children are updating their parents’ donut shops for the social-media age and reutilizing them to anchor neighborhoods. Combined with the archival footage of Democratic and Republican presidents alike embracing immigrants and refugees, The Donut King is an undeniably moving portrayal of how America, in providing a home to desperate exiles, has been in turn rewarded for its generosity of spirit.
Leaders and visionaries like Ted Ngoy benefit the lives of more people than they can even imagine. The least the rest of us can do is make America welcoming again.
Production company: Logan Content
Director: Alice Gu
Producers: Jose Nunez, Alice Gu, Farhad Amid, Tom Moran
Cinematographer: Alice Gu
Editor: Carol Martori
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
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