Monday, December 28, 2020

The Donut King - Documentary Review

The Documentary: The Donut King

The Director: Alice Gu

The Story: This documentary tells Ted Ngoy's story that is one of fate, love, survival, hard knocks, and redemption.

The Interview:

The Review:
Wow, what an incredible story. Did you grow up in California wondering why all the best donuts came from Cambodian owned donut shops? Director Alice Gu has all the answers! Not only is this documentary about the man who basically ruled the donut scene in California for years, but it's also a story of Cambodian refugees and the success stories that rose out of people being forced to flee their country or literally face being killed during the Khmer Rouge's genocidal takeover of the country. While that may not sound like the sugar coated and lovingly fried story you might have been expecting with this film, it is still a very entertaining on nonetheless.

Alice Gu, who is making her feature film debut with this documentary, seemed to have really done her homework prepping for this film as she is able to present so much history both of Ted Ngoy's donut empire as well as what it was like in Cambodia during the time when so many left as refugees for new and hopefully safer lives in America. The interviews with Ted, family members, extended family members, and everyone else who knew the man are extensive and enlightening and the director keeps things moving long at a very brisk pace so it never feels bogged down or too much going on.

You can really tell how passionate of a man Ted Ngoy is and there are so many facets to his life that both brought him unprecedented success and inevitable failure. I loved seeing how he helped so many of his fellow Cambodian immigrants get into the donut business and also helped them navigate a country they didn't fully understand and that wasn't always the most welcoming to them. Each donut store was a 100% family run business with all hands on deck. Even the kids were in on the action which of course wouldn't fly today but back then, there weren't so many regulations and labor laws and stuff like that. You can see how generations of family have grown, maintained and reinvented the businesses in true entrepreneurial fashion by constantly learning and modernizing.

I suppose this story is also a tragedy as we see the downfall of a man consumed with American consumerism, gambling, and greed. It was really sad to see him spiral out of control and the impact his transgressions had on all of the same people he lifted up as they arrived from Cambodia. Gu shows this to is in a way that is matter of fact and also in a way that maintains the man's humanity because really, he wasn't a bad person, he just let his passion for excess get the best of him. We've all been there and we all love donuts so this is ultimately a very relatable story in a lot of different ways.

If you grew up in California eating at any one of the many Ted Ngoy owned donut shops or the ones he helped to establish like DK's Donuts and Bakery, this documentary is going to give you all the nostalgic feels and all the memories of freshly fried donuts. I think you will probably smell them as you are watching as the director tactfully and tastefully points her camera in just the right ways to make want to reach into your screen and grab one of the dozens of delicious donuts on display. Don't say I didn't warn you!

The Verdict:
The Donut King is a tasty treat that is packed with substance and coated with the sweet flavors of success. The documentary is an inspiring story of prosperity and ingenuity that also digs into the heart of immigration and racism in 1970's America, the perils of fleeing a country under siege, and the pitfalls of living the so called "American dream."

The Interview:
I had an opportunity to speak with director Alice Gu for the TwoOhSix Podcast just before the end of the year. We talked about her experiences as a first time director, adapting to virtual film festivals, and how people like cinematographer Harris Savides and NBA star Kobe Bryant have influenced her life and career. She's definitely got that "Mamba Mentality" and I can see an All Star filmmaking career in her future. Oh, and of course we also talked about making the documentary, eating donuts on set, and learning life lessons while making movies. It was quite the conversation, I hope you enjoy listening to it.

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