If a documentary filmmaker is able to inform you on a subject in a way that is engaging, it is usually considered a fairly successful feat. It’s not easy to find a topic that will lend itself to a feature-length runtime in either direction (sometimes you have too much footage or not enough). If that filmmaker is able to structure the storytelling in such a way that there are reveals, surprises, or scenes that recontextualize earlier content, it becomes a stand-out. Director Alice Gu and her film The Donut King (2020) does this in spades. It also gives you such a specific story, that it exemplifies the universality of its themes, leaving the audience feeling as satisfied as they would be if they’d been able to reach in and eat the delicious donuts depicted within.
The film tells the story of Ted Ngoy, and his influence om donut shops in California run by Cambodian immigrants during the ’70s and ’80s. His story alone would be compelling, but Gu and writer Carol Martori are able to construct adjacent narratives about Cambodia, the American Dream, the immigrant experience, love, and many other topics that come together in extremely shocking and satisfying ways. It’s almost too much of a spoiler to say even that. It’s not every documentary’s goal to do what happens here, but the structure of this film is so invigorating, its subjects so compelling, and the donuts so yummy looking that you’ll be drawn right in.
The film recently played virtually at Cambodia Town Film Festival with no official word of distribution as of yet. However, this is a movie you’ll want to add to your watchlist and make a note to keep tabs on its release. It is a fantastic experience and a shining example of how a documentary can become a blockumentary. The Donut King earns the Must-See rating.