Emily Crandall on The Donut King
November 3, 2020
Guest post by Emily Crandall, student at New York University
Food documentaries are always on my radar. Anything that resembles Chef’s Table: sign me up. In the astounding film, The Donut King, directed by Alice Gu, many elements of the popular food documentary remain. The instrumental music, the montages of the different donut shops, and the up-close, cinematic shots of the donut making process all are employed beautifully by Gu at the beginning of the film. But this film is so much more than slow-motion shots of sugar being sifted. As Gu expressed in her Q&A, the initial appeal of this film is the product: the donut. However, she describes it as her “trojan horse.” The mass appeal of the donut would entice audience members to come see the film but the story itself is not solely about this circular pastry. It is a story of a man, Ted Ngoy, and his journey from fleeing Cambodia as a refugee to becoming a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. I did not expect this story to go as it did so I thought I would write about it in order of my reaction to it. Firstly, the story is so playful and quick on its feet. You definitely don’t want to look away for fear of missing a crucial piece of information, and in this film, every part is.
Positivity and hopefulness shines throughout a large portion of this film despite the sequences regarding the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge. We know from the description of the film that Ted will become successful, so every time the story gets closer to that success, the positive energy grows. This positivity is supported by upbeat music and fast-paced editing but also is radiated throughout the story because of who Ted is. From the start of the film, Ted blew my mind. His perseverance through such a tragedy and his ability to fight for the “American dream” for his family was inspiring. His story made me proud. It was a feat of human accomplishment. Gu enables the viewer to feel this too because she contrasts his vast achievements with archival footage of history and facts about that time period. This allowed me to appreciate Ted’s success even more because Gu allowed the success to be shown along with the acknowledgment of the struggles. This made me think about how customers so often consume a product while failing to recognize the history behind it. It is with films like this, that consumers can learn about the origins of something that they love or use frequently.
While watching, I kept thinking, I want this man to be rich so badly. It took Ted so many steps and so much hard work even to be able to run somebody else’s donut shop, much less his own. So when he bought his first donut shop, I was so excited. I wanted him to run the most successful donut shop in the world. I wanted him to get everything he ever wanted because somebody who flees a civil war, juggles three jobs, and remains positive through it all deserves something good. And that he did. Ted, and Alice Gu, tell the audience how he and his family enjoyed their riches. They went on many vacations, bought a Cadillac and a Mercedes, and even bought a three-story mansion on the water. But he also helped other Cambodian Americans open their own donut shops. Even in moments where Ted shows his extreme wealth, like when he tours his three-story home, we are not ignorant of his kindness and generosity towards others. Through the use of old photographs and personal interviews with members of Ted’s family, we can see how much of an impact his accomplishments had on those around him. This is what makes Ted so loveable and what makes the next part of the film so hard to come to terms with.
I wrote in my notes, “Well, that took a turn.” Throughout the film, we have been led on a journey by Gu, Ted, and his family to not only admire Ted and his triumphs but also to have complete trust in him. I would have never guessed that there would be even more obstacles in his way. Furthermore, I would have never guessed that Ted’s biggest obstacle would be Ted. As the story starts to unfold and Ted’s gambling problem is made clear, the scenes of Ted in his mansion reveal a new truth. It is empty and he is revisiting it as a man who has already lost everything. He has lost his house, his wife, and his fortune. Having this knowledge made me view the entire film differently. The scenes where Ted is revisiting his old home or the scenes in which Ted visits the ruins of the Cambodian Civil War emphasize a man touring his past. Whereas I previously thought he was visiting these places to emphasize how much he had gained, I now understood that Gu was trying to emphasize just how much he had lost. Even with his interview that is spliced throughout the film, I would have never guessed that he was speaking about his own story with the knowledge that it didn’t turn out well. I feel sadness for his family and for the people he hurt. But I am not mad at Ted. I am just disappointed.
However, Gu doesn’t allow me to feel disappointed for long.We transition to the present. The film is not telling stories of the past anymore. Ted comes back (He left for Cambodia after all of the donut shops closed) and visits his family. They love him and accept him still. A new generation of the children of the refugees and their children carry on the Cambodian donut legacy. They are educated, smart, savvy, and are helping to keep Ted’s legacy alive with their continued success and staying power among the big franchises like Dunkin’ Donuts. I think this is what Alice Gu does best in this film: she doesn’t focus solely on consumerism and business, she focuses on family. After all, Ted pursued the “American dream” for his family. The film opens with an emphasis on generations and family-owned businesses and it ends with a reconnected family, despite Ted’s mistakes. But I guess there is no problem a donut can’t fix.
Emily Crandall is currently a student of Cinema Studies at New York University. She was born in Westchester, New York, where she currently lives. Her interests include watching films, listening to music, reading too many books about Marilyn Monroe, and trying not to consume herself too much with the presidential race. Find her on Instagram @emilycrandall18.