THE DONUT KING, Alice Gu‘s feature-length directorial debut, is one of the most unexpectedly timely films of the year. Scheduled to premiere at SXSW, the festival was cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a shame, as this celebration of immigrants and their determination is the type of crowd-pleasing story we could all use right now.

The film focuses mainly on Ted Ngoy – the titular “Donut King”, from his beginnings to his fascinating transformation into a business mogul in America. Born and raised in Cambodia, Ted worked as a major in the army and made the difficult decision to flee during the Cambodian Civil War. He and his family wound up in L.A. and he worked nearly 24 hours every day to support them.

Meanwhile, the demand for donuts, the all-American breakfast, was high. California was at the height of its car culture and people needed a place to stop to buy these round delicacies. After trying a donut for the first time, Ted was hooked and immediately inquired about what it would cost to open his own shop. After saving up money and perfecting his baking skills thanks to a training program at Winchell’s Donuts, Ted eventually opened up his own donut shop.

THE DONUT KING is just as much about Ted as it is the people whose lives he has impacted. During the Cambodian genocide, Ted acted as a sponsor for over a hundred Cambodian families who were desperate to flee the country. As these families arrived in California, they found themselves unable to speak the language and eager to work. Ted would go on to train them at baking and, soon enough, he would help them open their own shops by leasing them, unintentionally building a donut empire on the West Coast.

As is with many stories of great success, Ted’s story also comes with its downfalls. Alice Gu successfully captures Ted as a flawed, three-dimensional character who you still can’t help but root for. Through in-depth interviews, Ted and his family are extremely likable and bring genuine warmth and honesty to the film.

Gu’s film is energetic in its presentation. You will not want to watch this while hungry, as the donuts showcased throughout are enough to make anyone want to rush to their local bakery. Combining gorgeous painterly animated sequences with plenty of archival footage and interviews, THE DONUT KING‘s production value helps make it immensely watchable. There are perhaps a few anecdotal segments that could’ve been cut, but these do serve to make the story more richly detailed. It is an intensely personal story, after all, about a man, his family, and the community he helped to foster.

The final moments of the film serve as a symbol of hope for the Cambodian-American donut community, showing what has changed and what has stayed the same since Ted Ngoy’s reign as the “Donut King”. On one hand, it’s a look at what the future holds for a new generation of Cambodian-American bakers. On the other hand, it’s a touching tribute to Ted’s legacy – a man who turned a struggle for survival into an opportunity to succeed.

Tales of the American Dream are a dime a dozen. And yet, stories like this feel especially important in this day and age.

THE DONUT KING received the Special Jury Prize for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling at this year’s (canceled) SXSW Film Festival.

Tom Milligan
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