While there's a definite argument that Alice Gu's The Donut King is more style than substance, there's also a definite argument that the style presented here is engaging and entertaining enough to please almost any fan of feature docs and most certainly anyone who would find themselves drawn to the intriguing story of Ted Ngoy.
Ngoy was a successful Major in the Cambodian army who fled his war-torn country with his family in the 1970s just as the country was coming under the authority of infamous dictator Pol Pot. Staying in Cambodia would have undeniably meant Ngoy's death given his military status, so Ngoy packed up his family's belongings and headed toward a United States ready to welcome thousands of Cambodian refugees.
Ngoy's early struggles are noteworthy, though his workaholic tendencies led him through a series of odd jobs including a rather sweet opportunity with Winchell's Donuts that taught him a trade where he decided to lay his hat and eventually opened up his own purveyor of pastries. Before long, Ngoy's hard work began to pay off and one shop turned into two shops and two shops turned into multiple shops. He was living the American dream and helping other refugees discover the American dream along the way.
Of course, as so many of us have learned, that American dream can be seductive and eventually Ngoy would become equally seduced by gambling and his successful empire would start to disappear.
For the most part, however, Gu keeps The Donut King an upbeat affair with more focus on Ngoy's redemption story and his successful transition from Cambodian to American life even with his peaks and valleys. Those familiar at all with Ngoy's story will know that critical bits and pieces are only given surface treatment here and in their place we get not so juicy tidbits like Ngoy's supposed claim to fame that he's the one who "invented" the idea of the hot-pink doughnut box.
Gu has most certainly constructed an engaging and entertaining documentary, The Donut King weaves together archival footage with current interviews, playful animation, and more than a little hip-hop to create a film that entertains even when you can't help but wish it would have dug a little bit deeper.
In a world where it seems like there's a Dunkin' on most street corners, a trip to California quickly reveals that the state's Cambodian refugees have figured out that a quality product and absolutely top-notch service can help them compete with the big boys. The film notes that by the 90's, 80% of the donut shops in California were owned by Cambodian refugees. While Ngoy may be The Donut King, he's helped an awful lot of others transition to American culture successfully and succeed as well.
The Donut King casts a wide net and its engaging personalities keep us watching even as Gu gets a little too pre-occupied with unnecessary tech gimmicks and those distracting animations. These are minor concerns, really, though they linger in the mind once the closing credits have rolled and you're left to remember Ngoy and his life journey. The Donut King may be more style than substance, but it's hardly full of empty calories and the story that unfolds will have you reflecting on this American dream of ours and the importance of refugees to our way of life and the circle of life itself.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic