In 2008, at the height of a presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama, the world economy suffered a crisis that seemed to push it toward the brink of a meltdown, one caused by dubious lending practices and a housing market that bubbled until it burst. At the heart of it: banks that should have known better engaging in shady dealings at the expense of the everyday consumer — and ultimately the world at large. But for all the harm perpetrated by big-name institutions, only one bank tied to the crisis ever was ever indicted for mortgage fraud, the family owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank headquartered in New York’s Chinatown. Where others were deemed “too big to fail,” Abacus wasn’t. It could take the fall.
That’s the central thesis of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail the latest from documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). And it’s one the film argues well. In pursuing Abacus, the New York District Attorney’s Office found a convenient target that offered some good press. Abacus was not blameless, largely due to its employment of a con man who used his job to fill his own pockets. But the bank’s higher-ups also began cooperating as soon as they realized something was amiss — yet ended up indicted anyway.
James talks to both sides, and to journalists who covered the case, like Rolling Stone Matt Taibbi and The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan, and the facts that emerge suggest that Abacus wound up on the receiving end of a too-vigorous effort to prosecute somebody, anybody, for the sins of the financial world. One sequence details, for instance, the curious decision to handcuff bank employees together chain gang-style for processing, one that seems to have been made out of a need for a photo op than any real concern for security.
But the most compelling parts of Abacus use the bank’s story as a way to tell other stories. One is the story of the Sung family, headed by Thomas Sung, a successful lawyer who started the bank in 1984 in part as a way to give back to the Chinese immigrant community. The film opens with Sung and his wife watching It’s A Wonderful Life and explaining how much they relate to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. While that might seem like an attempt to cast them in too saintly a light from the start, they really do seem that earnest and committed. Sung even had to talk down a crowd trying to make a run on the bank in 2003. When, later in the film, someone else makes the George Bailey comparison without prompting, it only reinforces the connection.
Like the Bailey Building And Loan, Abacus is a family business. The Sungs’ three daughters — one of whom once worked for the DA prosecuting her father — also become central to the film. One of James’ great strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to capture unguarded moments after winning over the trusts of his subjects, and Abacus is no exception. Hanging out with the Sung family as the trial drags on and on, his cameras depict their frustration and weariness and the concern they have for Thomas, who’s turned 80 by the time of the trial.
It also neatly captures Chinatown and how sometimes immigrant communities bring with them practices that don’t always conform to the legal expectations of their new homes. This includes the free flow of cash from small businesses and traditions that make, as Fan puts it, “the line between a gift and a loan is very blurry.” The film works at once as a compelling, tangled legal story, a depiction of Chinatown’s world within a world, and a portrait of those who live there and shape it as they try to bridge the gap between one world and the other, even if that task sometimes comes with as many risks as rewards.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens in New York this Friday, May 19 before expanding elsewhere.