'The Donut King' is a sweet story with surprising fillings

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Image: Screenshot from "The Donut King"

"Doughnut is American breakfast," declares Ted Ngoy, a former California businessman and now, the main character of The Donut King documentary. Ngoy remade the doughnut landscape upon his arrival to the United States as a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s.

When he took his first bite of an American doughnut, it was fated: "I know this is my future." Indeed, Ngoy made a couple of innovations that have lasted to this day.

What unfolds in The Donut King, directed by Alice Gu, is an exuberant, bittersweet tale of the refugee who made good and then didn't.

Gu dips the documentary in a California palette of sunny, pastel shades, flavoured with a mix of animation and archival footage, and underscored by a striking compendium of music, starting with hip hop all the way to classical (music selections include "The Donut Song" performed by Burl Ives and "Let's Eat" performed by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis). 

The moment you enter the film, you're held by the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Ted, blended with the tragedy of the Cambodian civil war and glazed by the fascinating rise of doughnut shops in America.

Considering Canadians consume the most doughnuts per capita annually (one billion per year), I'm sure this documentary will be a satisfying treat. It's being distributed on several VOD platforms, but most importantly, Films We Like (the Canadian distributor founded by Toronto documentary-maker Ron Mann) has partnered with independent doughnut shops across the country until the end of the year (list at end of article).

Each shop has their own "screening room," and when you go to the link and purchase to stream, the purchases also support the shop.

To her credit Gu -- who shot, produced and directed the film, and is also a respected DOP working with the likes of Werner Herzog and Rory Kennedy -- manages to sew the varying and vivid threads into a tight story, punctuated with intriguing turns, that never loses its focus, served up in just 90 minutes.

The American dream

The start of the film marks the start of any workday for a doughnut shop. At 4 a.m. in Los Angeles, a young woman gets up and heads to her family's store.

The viewer soon discovers that more than 80 per cent of the independent doughnut stores in California are owned by people of Cambodian descent. And the nexus of that web is "Uncle Ted," who arrived in the U.S. with his wife and three kids by way of Thailand in 1975.

Ted had been a Cambodian military trainer, and as the Khmer Rouge began its sweep across the country, he had to flee with this family.

"The American dream was very important," says Ted, explaining why he picked the U.S. for his family's migration.

What's so vital to Gu's documentary is the insertion throughout the doughnut story of the immigrant pathway. In 2020, the entire story takes on special meaning as we consider how communities are built, how migration is a constant cycle, and how we can only survive by helping one another. There are several very heart-rending moments where I had to pause the film to process my own emotions.

Ted takes on three jobs when his family is eventually sponsored by a church. He is a custodian at the church, a gas jockey and a salesman.

One day, a coworker at the gas station is spied chomping on a doughnut, which reminds Ted of the Cambodian nom kong cake. He heads directly to a doughnut store and buys a dozen.

It was love at first bite. Soon, he discovers he can undergo training at Winchell's -- an old-style West Coast Tim Horton's, if you will.

After six months, he gets his own store in Orange County -- a very white enclave at the time. There is a moment when the film goes into the difficulties of being an immigrant, but it's soon glossed over.

With his friendly wife Christy fronting the shop and his two oldest children, aged about eight and nine, working as well, he is able to purchase his own independent shop in 1976 in addition to his Winchell's franchise.

In three years, it blossomed into 25 stores. How did this happen? "I never have a day off," Christy emphasizes.

And then, the family gets some good news: Ted's parents are alive as are two sisters and their children. Eventually, Ted ends up sponsoring about 100 families.

With more than 60 stores in his name -- he begins teaching the business and leasing his shops to his Cambodian compatriots. "I only learned about 12 words in English: hello, thank you and the doughnut names [there were only 10 back then]," reveals one woman who was just a teenager at the time when she arrived.

Gu also interviews former heads of Dunkin' Donuts and Winchells, as well as a food journalist to round out her doughnut history.

There's plenty to feast on in terms of the development of the snack. Moreover, The Donut King manages to delve into dark territory as Gu heads to Cambodia to unearth the terrifying years of the Khmer Rouge: the 12-hour work days in the fields for children and adults, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the cruelty and torture, and eventually, for some, ultimate freedom. "I never want to think of that nightmare again," says one shop owner, who left as a young girl.

I got goosebumps seeing black and white footage of ex-U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter declaring the "moral obligation" to help the refugees. In light of the last years of the Trump administration, the film serves as a sober reminder of what is possible: a kinder America.

'Excitement, money, greed'

There's a lovely side story in the film about how Ted, a very impoverished high schooler, wooed his wife-to-be, who was at the time the daughter of a high-ranking official. Ted's fearlessness in the romantic realm would become the key ingredient of both his success and his demise (i.e., business-wise -- Ted is still alive).

Indeed, Ted was a multimillionaire by the mid-'80s, rubbing shoulders with prominent Republicans (including Ronald Reagan), and living the high life in a US$2-million mansion with an elevator, pool and a boat dock. The family travelled the world: "We had parties all the time," recalls his daughter.

Then, it all came to an end.

Ted's downfall comes down to three words: "Excitement, money, greed." I'll leave you to watch the documentary and find out exactly what happened.

The film doesn't end there and there's much more in its final 15 minutes. The documentary is, in actuality, layers of love stories: Ted and his wife, Ted and the doughnut, the love of success and money, parents and their children, a paean to immigration, America and its fast food.

When I think of The Donut King, I get a dreamy, delicious feeling triggered by my favourite doughnut: a plain, chocolate-glazed -- comforting and satisfying. This film is chock full of astonishing fillings.

Where to watch

VOD services

Or, support your independent dougnut shop: Click here for a list of participating Canadian shops (until December 31, 2020)

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: Screenshot from The Donut King

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