This is the year of the virtual film festival and the independent film. The festivals are giving audiences a chance to experience something fresh and new. Although I would love to sample every film at the festivals, there is only so much time in the day, a week. Urbanworld, Film Festival packed its 2020 schedule with so many good features. In the end, I chose the films that seemed to resonate with me and with many of you. So, here are my capsule reviews of The Donut King, American Thief, Waikiki, and Take-Out Girl. Each film uniquely depicts the urban landscape in this new world we are in.
The Donut King
Los Angeles does have a lot of donut shops. The pastry is perfect for a city that is largely on the go. According to the film, The Donut King, the sweet bread has made it possible for many Cambodian refugees to join American society as thriving business owners. The first person to tell her story is a second-generation owner who is still in the business. She tells of all the early days and nights spent in the shop, and all the donuts she eats. She says it’s all because of Uncle Ted.
The film is the rise and soft landing of a donut mogul Ted Ngoy. The film traces Ted from his the Indo China war in the mid-60s. It is an educational and very engaging tale that also offers a bit of the refugee narrative that Americans need to hear right now. Ted started making donuts while working three other jobs as his family tried to assimilate into American society. He took what he learned from the Winchell Donuts training program to open his own shop. It grew into a franchise and by the late 70s, he had helped sponsor other Cambodian refugees who came to American and started shops of their own under Ted’s guidance.
Uncle Ted sponsored over 100 families. Donut King does go into the tragic loss of his empire, but as it does, we meet so many other families Ted sponsored. These families were happy and raising their families in a space that was safe from the war. They were also working for themselves. Unlike many biographical docs like this, Ted’s story does not center him for long. Although it does get dangerously close to the bootstrapping propaganda speak, Donut King is an exceptional story. It’s engaging, while educating which is tough for a biographical documentary. Ted even tells some of the stories, like the one about the pink boxes. The Cambodian donut shop owners started that trend. You will have to watch The Donut King and see.
Rating 4.5 of 5 stars
The modern age of police brutality protests has become fertile ground for American cinema. They represent a social struggle that has touched every part of society at this point, so its appearance in the film is the next logical step. The Miguel Silveira film takes a Mr. Robot approach to the subject. Ben (played by Paul Hunter) is a conspiracy theorist who is also a skilled hacker. He has an online following of people who were wired for the truth in the lead up to the 2016 election. His message caught the eye of two young hackers Toncruz (Xisto Maximo Monroe) and Diop Mason (Khadim Diop). Toncruz was already having a very tough time with life in the wake of the protests in New York City. He was remembering his late father, shot dead by a cop as he tried to shield Toncruz from danger. His father was unarmed. The officer played by Allan Guy Wilcox.
The officer disappeared after the shooting, but Toncruz has never stopped looking for him. As the tension toward the election heats up and so do the protests, the boys try to plan their own hack. Toncruz gets involved on his own as someone contacts him who knows where the cop is who killed his dad. This person has a dashcam video that was said to be nonexistent. It shows that his dad was unarmed and reaching away from officers to shield his little boy, Toncruz, who was coming down the stairs of the brownstone. After seeing this movie, the boy wants in, but his contact also needs something in return. They are hacking the election, just as Ben predicted, and they need the help of a star.
American Thief is a film with a neat documentary nestled inside of it. The footage of the protests and the interviews of people on the street are real. It creates a sort of chaotic ambiance for the grieving teen at the center of the narrative. The mix of the real events with the narrative gives this a Mr. Robot feel. However, the plot may be a bit too simple to figure out for some, just right for others. For all audiences, it’s the film that will define an era.
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Tera is a Chinese girl in a community of Latinx and Black families who are all struggling to make ends meet. Her mother runs a restaurant, where Tera, her brother Saren (Lorin Alon Ly), and her cousins work. Tera’s mother Wavy Wong (Lynna Yee) works so hard that she is longing for a better life. She is also invisible to everyone. Tera wants to be seen. So, when she stumbles upon a local drug dealer’s business, she sees a way to make her whole family’s dreams come true. Tera impresses Lalo (Ski Carr), he sees something in her that is much more than even I expected (it’s a doozy of a plot twist). Their work relationship works fine until Tera slips up and almost gets the police involved.
Soon, her ties to the dealer, her relationship with everyone is precarious. This includes her budding admiration for the Nate (played by Dijon Talton) who helps her take out the trash at night. The families are urban with a Blaccent that is hard to miss but one that is earned honestly by living in such a mixed neighborhood. Tera’s Chinese mother even speaks Spanish. The blend of the clientele and the people seem very authentic. Take Out Girl is about the tough decisions that come from living in poverty too long and having no options but the wrong ones for survival. Writer/director Hisonni Johnston creates a deceptive tale of hope that darkens as the trappings of poverty and the residue of desperate choices close in on this family.
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Kea’s woes and the views in Waikiki are the two main characters in the film. Kea, played by Danielle Zalopany, is a woman who works as a hula dancer and a night club singer most nights. By day, she teacher Hawaiian culture to kids. All of this work keeps her busy but it is not enough to keep her off the streets after she leaves her hypermasculine and abusive boyfriend Branden (Jason Quinn). Kea lives in her van, on the most beautiful place in the US. One night, after fighting with Branden, Kea gets into an accident that changes her life.
Wo, played by Peter Shinkoda, is a homeless man who lives in a part of the island that people like Kea don’t get to see. He appears to be a dirty and deranged homeless man, but after he connects with Kea one faithful night, Wo begins to show the woman how she can still find her way back to her roots on the island. Kea does not take to the lesson easily. She first loses her home/transportation, then her work, and finally, she thinks she is losing her mind. But it’s not a mental illness that Kea is experiencing. It is an awakening to what the world really is and how she can stay grounded to the land and the spirit of everything she needs in order to find her sanity and a new beginning for herself on the island she calls home.
Writer/Director Christopher Kahunahana stations the beauty of the island in the background, just beyond Kea and Wo’s story. Its beauty is highlighted and also the industrialization that ins some places serves as a barrier between the people and the land (parking lots) or the water (buildings). Kea’s flashbacks are of her grandmother sitting in a chair in the ocean. The simplicity of the scene speaks to the anxiety Kea feels in just trying to survive the capitalist system that has transformed her home. The moment she finds that connection again is small, yet powerful and beautifully achieved.
Waikiki is also featured in the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival with runs September 24-October 31. Check them out for more information.
Rating 4.5 of 5