Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America’s most reliable non-fiction filmmakers, even when crafting work for the small screen. Though it’s receiving a theatrical release, Abacus will also air on Frontline (PBS’s long-running documentary journalism show) some time in 2017. The film doesn’t feel like a typical Frontline episode, however. The reporting is solid, but the focus is also on the internal strife of a family unjustly targeted by the government. Its emotions are big and upfront rather than restrained.
The major banks got off scot-free after the great recession. Rather than go after the big guys, prosecutors started a five-year legal battle with a small bank in New York City’s Chinatown called Abacus. Journalist Matt Taibbi explains the film’s subtitle early on. Institutions like Citibank and Bank of America were too big to fail, and they avoided punishment. Abacus, by comparison, was small enough to jail. It’s the government making an example of the little guy, treating him like a fall guy.
While major bank execs got bailed out, it’s almost as if the Sung family is trying to be drowned.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Director: Steve James
Release Date: May 17, 2017
Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here’s a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown.
But then, Murphy’s Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey.
At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey’s savings and loan and the Thomas Sung’s Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes–the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying.
This might be why the film doesn’t feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. Thomas, Hwei Lin, and their daughters are strong in their own ways. They’re admirably resilient, to put it politely. (At a certain point, the resilience turns into take-no-shit toughness, especially from the Sung daughters.) James films the family alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable as so many family interactions can, but they’re all well-picked given how well they reveal the family’s dynamic.
James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC’s Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus’ primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA’s office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don’t understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There’s such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn’t have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable.
I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn’t help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it’s nice to see the little guy fight, there’s a knowledge that this won’t be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they’ve done? But the world isn’t so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet.
This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”