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After watching The Donut King, I now know where to go to get my sugary fix when travel without restrictions is allowed again. The various delights offered by one Santa Monica operation is enough to make me want to jet down instead of fly across the Pacific Ocean! This work was released last year at the Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Festival and was quickly picked up for wider distribution. To find it, however, meant waiting in line like the time I was in Oregon for Voodoo Doughnut. Though the wait was thirty minutes long, the wait was worth it.
Ted Ngoy is hailed as a pioneer of the enterprising spirit in California. He’s as shrewd as Ray Kroc in taking partial ownership of the name and franchising out McDonalds. The variation is in how he helped his fellow Cambodians who came to America open their operations and when he took a slice of the American dream.
This film is about the plight many immigrants have faced rather than the sugary delight. Alice Gu skims the surface of this topic and thankfully doesn’t say the world can be saved by sharing a doughnut. You can’t plug a hole in a problem any country may one day face, and nor can you hide it behind a wall of ignorance. Despite highlighting why this confectionary is delicious, the ugliness of the Khmer Rouge regime wants to be said.
The bouncing around of this subject is dizzying, and if we are to care, at least we’re seeing the topic through a proper cultural lens. It’s partially understood through Ngoy’s eyes. This work also reveals why he is king. He leased many storefronts to fellow immigrants from his country.
However, to stay being a leader isn’t without controversy. He has a gambling problem, and it nearly led to the fall of many because he flipped the bills (literally) of who owns the space. The loss burned a lot of bridges between him and those he helped. More information about the fallout needed to be said. Who was out of a house and job? What did they do to bounce back? Those operations which stayed running had to get loans and change with the times. And without Ngoy’s meddling, they are the true princes of the pioneering spirit. Mag’s Donuts in Irvine, BC Donuts in Pasadena, Rose Donuts and Cafe survived and are run by a new generation. It’s hard to say if Gu’s work helped mend fences or not, as this detail is not covered, but it’s sweet to show what’s past is past.
Today’s social media climate makes smearing anyone’s name easy. Had this cancel culture been used back when Ngoy was really in trouble, I doubt he’d survive. He’s no longer involved in this world and has moved on. I’m sure the younger generation of store operators are breathing a sigh of relief. But I’m still curious if Ngoy ever admitted himself into rehabilitation or group therapy to deal with his troubling habits; this documentary didn’t definitively say if he’s changed.
To say there’s a hole in this plot goes beyond saying. He deserves a place in history to explain why the doughnut scene is as it is in California. As for wanting to see why they are unique now, this documentary sweetly sums it up–it’s all about marketing, putting the love into the knead and being innovative with the toppings.
If DK Doughnut ever expands and ends up rivalling Mister Doughnut of Japan, I’ll be there to taste their wares! There’s too much history about this former American turned Japanese chain, and that’s a documentary in itself!
3½ Stars out of 5