Review: How an Immigrant Realized—and Lost—His American Dream in The Donut King

In a week front-loaded with average or subpar horror offerings, it’s nice to feel lifted by a documentary about the doughnut industry in California—something of a doughnut hotspot in America. The Donut King is actually about Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who came to America in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge took over his homeland. Within a year of his landing on the shores of California, he had learned how to bake all manner of doughnuts and opened his own store. Over the next few years, he continued to open one store after another until he had built a multi-million-dollar empire making the nation’s most popular breakfast food.

The Donut King

Image courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

The first two-thirds of the movie (directed by Alice Gu, making her feature debut; produced by Ridley Scott) tracks Ngoy’s journey, from a young man courting his future wife Christy (whom he named his doughnut chain after, Christy’s) against her father’s wishes to his first steps in America. Ngoy came up with the idea of putting doughnuts in pink boxes instead of the industry staple white boxes; his success kept Dunkin’ Donuts out of California for decades, and he sponsored hundreds of fellow Cambodian immigrants’ visas to help bring them to America, having them open up franchises up and down the west coast and giving them a profit-sharing deal that benefitted both parties. The doughnut industry may not sound like the most exciting thing, but when it’s framed in Ngoy’s life story, it’s impossible to resist. He is the living embodiment of the American dream, and like most people living at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Without giving away any details, the film (and Ngoy’s life) takes an unexpected turn that leads to the rapid and complete destruction of his empire, and it’s incredible watching him be so honest and positive about the complete breakdown of his professional and personal worlds. The movie’s final third is more about the lasting impact that Ngoy’s legacy has to this day. Cambodian-Americans still own the vast majority of the doughnut shops in California, but Dunkin’ has now moved in, so they’ve had to get creative in terms of their offerings and means of promotion (social media can do good, apparently). While that’s interesting, it’s a bit less so because Ngoy isn’t involved directly. Still, he does make a return at the end of the film to revisit some of his old locations and reconnect with some of the family members and friends still in the business. The Donut King has it all: success, failure, a touching love story, betrayal, survival, and a message about redemption that is truly inspiring. Plus, Ngoy is a true character with an infectious spirit and eternal optimism that, honestly, is exactly what we need today.

The film opens theatrically on Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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