SXSW Film Review: The Donut King

Award-winning documentary finds the bitter truth in sweets

If you've had a fresh doughnut in Los Angeles, odds are really high that it came from a business owned and operated by Cambodian-American business people. That, as SXSW Award winner The Donut King explains, is because of one man.

Cinematographer-turned-director Alice Gu's first feature, a boisterous yet thoughtful story, works from a fascinating premise. She starts by finding something so ubiquitous that we completely forget that there's a reason it happened. In the case of the Donut King, the reason is Ted Ngoy, a brash and often impulsive young Cambodian kid who joined the army and ended up fleeing to the U.S. to escape the incoming Khmer Rouge.

What he did when he got here was to see an opportunity that met his necessity. It's not just that he wanted a job, but that he wanted to build something for his family and for the Cambodian community that was stuck in Camp Pendleton, desperate for a chance at that new life they had been promised. Ngoy didn't simply want them to work for him (although the massive success of his Christy's Donut empire shows he wasn't shy of making a buck) - he just wanted them to work.

He's quietly a series of contradictions. Ngoy the entrepreneur, Ngoy the family man, Ngoy the self-sacrificing community leader, Ngoy the refugee who wants to be looked up to and emulated, Ngoy the egomaniac. They're all parts of an inevitable rise-and-fall-and-somewhat-redemption story of a man whose legacy is bigger than he is.

The Donut King took the SXSW Special Jury Recognition for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling, and rightly so. Gu does stellar work compiling and constructing Ngoy's life story through interviews, and archive and contemporary footage (much of it of delicious, delicious donuts - you'll be drooling by the time she gets to the history of the cronut). Yet it's the addition of animation sequences by Chapeau Studios and 1881 Animation that is the perfect drizzle of icing. These segments are used most during the toughest period - the transition from Cambodia during the first days of genocide to Ngoy's first days working at a Winchell's Donut House in Newport Beach.

Using them allows Gu to strike the same balance as last year's like French-Cambodian Oscar-nominated animated history Funan - never detracting from the weight of what happened without creating a massive divide between the first and second act. It's in the third act, with Ngoy's well-recorded Icarus-esque fall from grace, that the shift comes. Even then, it's one of perspective, not tone.

After all, Gu's film is never just about Ngoy. Yes, it's about the way he helped build an opportunity for so many people, and how choices he made - like having pink boxes instead of white - became pivotal to the viability of fledgling stores. Yet Gu keeps her camera on how the community he helped build thrived and flourished without him, even as it acknowledged his role. As Asian-Americans face increasing racism, its closing message about how immigrant communities - like the Cambodians who came over in 1975 with guns at their backs - help define America has only become more timely.

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SXSW, SXSW 2020, SXSW Film 2020, Alice Gu, Ted Ngoy, Christy's Donuts, The Donut King

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