This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
The Donut King (2020)
Written by Carol Martori
Directed by Alice Gu
When my patron Matt first picked The Donut King, I wasn’t sure what angle to take for the review. This was before I watched the film, but it became evident to me how to talk about the documentary during my viewing. The film centers around the “too good to be true” promise of “the American Dream” and the impact chasing this unattainable myth has, particularly on immigrants & refugees, desperate to make something of their lives and raise up their families. The cost of the pursuit is poison in the veins, a direct product of the ravenous inhumane Capitalism American specializes in fomenting.
The Donut King in the title is Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who found success in the United States in the 1970s & 80s as the head of a growing donut empire. He trained under a West coast chain and surpassed them in the number of stores owned. Ngoy also set up businesses for his fellow Cambodians to run as they came to the U.S. and, as a result, is regarded by many as a pillar of the immigrant community. It reminded me of many articles I’ve read of Chinese-American groups that help newcomers find work in the restaurant industry, spacing the businesses apart, so they are never in direct competition. The twist comes when Ngoy is introduced to Las Vegas and becomes enticed with the idea of winning big, and develops a gambling addiction. That leads to him selling rather than renting stores which hurts his own family’s income & traveling to Vegas without his wife’s knowledge only to lose tens of thousands of dollars in a single trip.
In Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism, she outlined much of the undercurrents of modern anxiety, tracing their roots back to political, cultural, and economic structures put in place post-World War II. Cruel optimism describes circumstances wherein the pursuit of a powerful, life-changing goal leads to misery on the part of the pursuer. A good example might be taking up smoking to fit in with the cool kids. The end result of such a habit is a degradation of life and possibly death via lung cancer. On a larger scale, we have the American Dream, where a person’s career, home, relationships, and relation to the community are meant to add up to something greater. The reality that many experience is that they are never fulfilled following this path and often end up angrier and more frustrated as they find modern life is something that they cannot understand.
Ngoy came from Cambodia, where Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, posing as Communists, led a brutal genocide through the country. Ngoy became caught up in the global propaganda machine of the United States, wherein every enemy was labeled as Communist to justify the brutality of Capitalism. According to historian Michael Vickery, the most Cambodians the Khmer Rouge could have killed was around 300,000, very much an appalling number. What gets lost in the state-sponsored rhetoric is that the United States is responsible for 600,000 to over one million dead by U.S. bombings in the country, which were done indiscriminately.
Further delving into the history of the Khmer Rouge, you find that Pol Pot openly rejected the very tenets of Communism. He often paid lip service by name-dropping figures like Lenin & Marx but said, “We are not communists … we are revolutionaries” who do not ‘belong to the commonly accepted grouping of communist Indochina.” (1977, Vickery). The Khmer Rouge’s Communism should be seen the same way North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Anyone can drop a word, but you must look at actions to determine what the true ideology is. Unfortunately, much of the media’s coverage of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge was done without fact-checking sources because these sources were towing U.S. propaganda pro-capitalist lines. At this point, if an American news source starts talking about Communism, I tune them out because I know everything they say is filtered through the most distorted of lenses.
Ted Ngoy was a small piece of a larger narrative that was being sold about the Southeast Pacific, using the ever-present specter of Communism as a bogeyman to justify brutality. There is never a deconstruction of French colonialism and its long-term effects on economics and communities. No one ever asks “Why is Cambodia so economically bereft” while historian Michael Parenti answers the unasked question by saying, “There are no poor countries. There are only over-exploited countries.” Ngoy was forced to flee his homeland due to the domino effect of European colonialism shaping his region over centuries. There would not have been a desire for the sort of brutality Pol Pot brought if people had not been degraded by foreign exploitation.
When Ngoy arrives in the United States, he is immediately placed in a concentration camp but eventually sponsored by the pastor of a church in California. That stuck out to me as the American church is complicit in the racial hierarchy manifested out of white supremacy. Asian refugees are desirable by these people as they are seen as “hard workers,” which helps out when the tithe plate goes around. There also isn’t the subconscious guilt & fear white supremacists have concerning Black people. You will never see churches rush to help Black people in the same way they scramble to give aid to Asian refugees. The same can also be said about Mexican/Central American refugees; they are often lumped in with Black people.
While the overall tone of The Donut King is one of positivity, showing how Ngoy overcame his addiction, it misses the mark in a few ways. His only way of escaping gambling was to return to Cambodia decades later. His marriage ends due to an affair, and he is disconnected from much of the community he helped shape in California. Ted tried to become involved in Cambodian politics when he returned; he had been an ardent Republican while in the U.S. This led to his attempt to start a new Cambodian party, the Free Development Cambodian Party. It didn’t work, and by 2002 he was broke, having dumped what money he did have into electioneering. He ping-ponged between the U.S. & Cambodia, remarried, and started investing his time in American churches and their facilities in Cambodia. While crediting Christianity with curing his gambling addiction in an interview, Ngoy also admits in the next breath he did bet on a football game in the previous year. Cruel optimism is seen as something truly cruel when inflicted on refugees who have been told that she will reward them if they just work hard for America.
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