Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail allows Steve James his latest opportunity to excel at capturing memorable personalities while also encouraging noticeable filmmaking growth through the film’s courtroom drama subplot.
Its title a witty play on the “too big to fail” label attached to the likes of actual mortgage fraud purveyors Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, the documentary centers on the Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings in New York City’s Chinatown, which became the only U.S. bank to contend with criminal charges as a result of the 2008 economic collapse.
In retracing the steps that led to this injustice, James draws the first of several parallels to It’s a Wonderful Life, one of Abacus founder Thomas Sung’s favorite movies.
Fashioning himself a George Bailey type, Sung lives up to that lofty billing and it’s a pleasure to see him walk like a humble celebrity through the neighborhood, greeting fellow immigrants whom he’s helped secure residential and commercial property when no other bank would give them a loan.
Sung’s commitment to his fellow man firmly in place, along with the shared values of his daughters and bank colleagues Jill and Vera, the foundation is set for James to evenly present the unfortunate travails that befall the financial institution.
Utilizing interviews with the people who live through the ordeal, James ably chronicles how the honesty of alerting authorities to a handful of employee’s misconduct was rewarded with five years of extreme stress as the New York County D.A.’s office investigate Abacus and bring the bank to trial for alleged large scale mortgage fraud.
These hardships are most memorably depicted through several fly-on-the-wall scenes of the Sung family passionately speaking over one another, exhibiting a fascinating dynamic complicated by mutual support and inherent age-based hierarchy that tragically excludes the insights of Chanterelle, the youngest Sung daughter who also happens to be a lawyer.
Looping in the stubborn prosector and D.A., plus journalists who covered the story that are as baffled as the Sungs by the legal actions, the director objectively shows that racism may have played a significant role and lets his Chinese-American subjects (and their attorneys) verbally relay similar interpretations.
Unable to film in the courtroom, James opts for recreations of the trial with paintings and dramatic reenactments of the dialogue. Though these approaches seem like they’ll quickly wear out their welcome, the riveting content and deft editing keep them successful means of relaying that important information.
Perhaps dues to the remove from the courtroom, Abacus never quite reaches the next-level emotions of James’ best work (Hoop Dreams, No Crossover, The Interrupters and Life Itself), but it’s still a terrific story and worthy of being properly told by a master documentarian.
Grade: B-plus. Not rated, but with brief, strong adult language. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo by Sean Lyness)