The Donut King movie review & film summary (2020)


By the mid 1970s, Ngoy had arrived in California with his family, having escaped the violence in a war-torn Cambodia. By chance he learned of the irresistible smell and taste of a fresh donut, but by his incredible hard work he was soon able to learn the business and open up his own shop, one that appealed to a growing market. Within years, he had multiple shops and had achieved financial success, while constantly working alongside his family who shared his sense of sacrifice. Ngoy had some brilliant ideas that changed the donut industry (like using pink boxes instead of white ones, originally to save money), and within a few years, he became a millionaire. The documentary takes a nuanced approach to the oft-touted American Dream, showing the extreme dedication and hard work required to even proliferate such a rosy-eyed view of success. 

Ngoy might be referred to here as The Donut King, but his legacy concerns more than his own success. As Gu’s film lovingly illustrates, it’s about the other refugee families and generations that he supported, and who then followed his regimen and earned their own small fortunes. (By the 1990s, 80% of the donut shops in California were owned by Cambodian families.) It’s particularly fitting that the documentary doesn’t begin with Ngoy but with a 29-year-old woman named Mayly Tao, who comes from a new generation of donut shop innovators. She speaks of the reality of being a child of an immigrant family who runs a small business (“You can definitely identify with spending a lot of time in the shop”) and follows the same hard schedule—getting up before dawn, leaving her home to make donuts. In this case, it’s at the social media-savvy DK Donuts & Bakery, which her mother founded in the early ’80s, and she now owns. 

In telling this story, Gu is excessively preoccupied with holding your attention, using up all of her tricks to the point of losing some freshness. It’s bright and soundtracked with more donut-inspired hip-hop tracks than you can imagine, and doesn’t hesitate to repeat them. It also repeats some visuals—particularly of donuts falling in slow motion—in a way that shows the documentary is a little thwarted in how to make this vibrant world visually engaging for its whole run-time. The saga that Gu unravels is always interesting, but it’s the storytelling that can be a little disorienting as it jumps back and forth between past and present, or in danger of abbreviating passages. The “fall” in Ngoy’s story in particular leaves you wishing that Gu went into more detail about how Ngoy was essentially dethroned by his own actions. It’s a genuinely shocking and tragic part of the story, and the documentary feels like it has too many other things on its mind to properly engage it. 



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