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Movie Review: The Donut King

This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”,  Zach reviews . . . THE DONUT KING! (May 7, 2021)

Click here for the blurb and viewing link of THE DONUT KING!

“The United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries,” remarked Gerald R. Ford, 38th President of the United States, at a news conference on May 6, 1975 as the country prepared to welcome Cambodian refugees fleeing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime.

President Ford’s words serve as an anchor to telling the story that is at the backbone of the documentary THE DONUT KING, available to rent in Red River’s Virtual Cinema for just $4.99. This piece, which twice features excerpts of Ford’s remarks, traces Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy’s own pursuit of the American Dream and how it quickly benefitted countless of his fellow countrymen and women in the vibrant donut shop business of California.

As Cambodian refugees assimilated to life in America in the mid to late 1970s, the struggle to find work and remain financially afloat affected many families, a common thread to immigrants and refugees searching for the American Dream. For Ngoy and his wife Christy, that dream became a reality in 1977 when Ted went to work part-time for Winchell’s Donuts. At the time, he had been employed as a gas station attendant and frequently sampled donuts while working long shifts or jumping between jobs. His initial goal was to help bring more money to his family, but he eventually opened up his own shop after learning the tricks of the business. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The documentary does a whale of a job tracing the early parts of Ngoy’s life, particularly as it balances showing what he and thousands of others left behind in Cambodia vis-à-vis what he achieved when he assimilated successfully to California. While one cannot help but realize that his success story was not nearly the same for so many refugees who arrived in the United States, Ngoy’s own drive to be a self-made businessman and provide his family with a better life did indeed help others from his country.
As he began opening more and more shops, Ngoy sponsored fellow Cambodian families, including relatives and friends, while also giving them employment and the means to open their own donut businesses. Today, thanks in large part to him, privately owned donut shops in California are largely in the hands of Cambodian refugees, who now have additional generations of Cambodian-Americans living their very own dream.

As you sit here reading this, you’re probably thinking that this sounds like a beautiful story of success and achievement and that everyone must have lived happily ever after. For Ted Ngoy, that is far from the truth. Unfortunately, donuts were not the only thing he developed an affinity for in the USA. His other great love was unhealthy in a much different way. That great love was Las Vegas.

The filmmakers here do an admirable job of inserting that crucial part of the story at a perfect point in the movie, right at the time you feel that this couldn’t get much better for Ngoy, who became wealthy and was able to provide for his wife and kids. Much like the mesmerizing documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS from a few years ago, THE DONUT KING drops some big bombshells over time, taking turns that you often least expect.

I will not delve any deeper into Ngoy’s story in order to not give anything away, but let me say this: the piece is not nearly as cohesive a story once it turns to the darker side of things. While I admire its balance, I feel that THE DONUT KING leaves out too many important details that could have been added by lengthening the film by 15 to 20 minutes. A simple Google search to Ted Ngoy’s brief Wikipedia page (which I can’t imagine is changed too often) after viewing the film provides some of these much-needed insights as do other more reliable forms of research on the web. I almost wonder if the filmmakers only wanted to go so far into the drama of Ngoy’s gambling issues without saying certain things for the whole world/audience to hear.

Even still, the film is unique in so many ways, not only for its beautiful depiction of the ways in which a vulnerable population achieved so much success, but also for its ability to tell us East Coast Dunkin’ lovin’ viewers about what makes a real, family-owned donut shop so special. For the record, I have never been a huge donut fan myself and find Dunkin’ too artificial. This film reminds me of the beauty of family-owned donut shops, which I have found to be the most delicious and fresh in how they make their donuts!

Above all else, the film shines a light on just one of countless stories in which immigrants and refugees have contributed so significantly to our nation just as President Ford knew they would despite receiving pushback when he made plans to welcome people from Cambodia in 1975.

Additional words that Ford gave in his speech at that time stand out: “I’m convinced that the vast majority of Americans today want these people to have another opportunity.” President Ford was certainly right and even though Ted Ngoy only succeeded with his opportunity for a time, so have many others no matter where they come from. This film reminds us that the beauty of America is so extensive and that even as individuals fall, we can still rise up amidst challenges and be proud of what we have done to help others all along.

Stay tuned for Volume XII, which will appear on Friday, May 21. Next film to be determined.

Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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