Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Review by Matthew Eng

Directed by

Steve James

Starring

Jiayang Fan Neil Barofsky Ti-Hua Chang

Anticipation.

A worthy David-and-Goliath story is tackled by one of our most serious-minded documentarians.

Enjoyment.

A nuts-and-bolts doc with a sufficiently endearing and appropriately infuriating take on a cruelly-waged case.

In Retrospect.

Not without its blind spots, but James locates both familial intimacy and a bigger picture without sentimentalising his subject.

Steve James captures an upsetting instance of American institutional oppression in compelling fashion.

In 2012, four years after America’s mortgage crisis shone a stark light on the tawdry practices of the country’s leading financial institutions, charges of conspiracy, larceny, and systemic fraud were filed against the Chinese-servicing, family-owned and operated Abacus Federal Savings Bank. Founded in the 1980s by Thomas Sung, a self-made, Shanghai-born entrepreneur who oversees the business alongside two of his four daughters, Jill and Vera, Abacus is a cornerstone of New York City’s tight-knit Chinatown enclave, the 2,651st largest bank in the US, and the first and only bank to be criminally indicted in the wake of the recession.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the new film from valiant documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself), opens in the living room of Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin as the elderly Chinese couple watch scenes from one of their favourite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmastime classic, in which James Stewart’s hard-pressed George Bailey admirably overcomes financial ruin, familial turmoil, and near-fatal self-destruction to finally appreciate the joys of life, is a continual frame of reference for Abacus, a blunt but appropriate choice given the very difficult and very recent struggles that the Sung family have undergone.

The prolonged legal battle of Sung and his first-generation clan makes obvious sense as the centre of a Steve James project. But strip the Sung family’s story of its entire cultural identity and push it seven decades into the past and it’s easy to imagine these events as rousing material for a classical Capra drama. Truthfully, a film about the Sungs could have adopted any number of styles and pinpointed any number of insights. It’s strange, then, that Abacus is often found lacking for a personal filmmaking stamp, especially since it is from the same director who gave us 2011’s The Interrupters, which remains one of the decade’s most commanding nonfictional feats, a sobering and increasingly timely chronicle about a group of heroic activists attempting to curb violence on Chicago’s South Side.

Which is not to say that Abacus is a disappointment as such. At best, it’s a humble heartbreaker, but it owes its muted power less to its esteemed director than its instantly-endearing subjects, particularly Thomas, who tries his best to fashion himself as a modern-day George Bailey in his daily life. He’s a revered hero and trusted linchpin of his district, the type of man who summons hearty nods and inquisitive conversation from scores of neighbourhood clientele just by traveling a three-block radius. The single most poignant aspect of the film comes from simply watching this patriarch-proprietor preserve his reliably stoic facade amid a potentially damning investigation, set off by the discovery of a money-laundering operation being run by one the bank’s loan officers.

Not one for betraying even the tiniest hint of pain or paranoia, Thomas leaves the more emotionally-transparent demonstrations up to Hwei Lin, featured briefly but filled with a candour that’s by turns droll and devastating, as well as their children, including youngest daughter Chanterelle, who, we learn early on, quit her job as an assistant under incumbent New York District Attorney Cy Vance upon discovering that he was prosecuting her family. Vance himself appears and makes an unflatteringly pallid defence in the talking head scenes that comprise the bulk of Abacus, which allows a multitude of speakers (from journalists and jurors to attorneys and former employees) to offer commentary, their views on the Sungs falling all over the spectrum between guilt and innocence.

Even so, it’s clear that the film’s sympathies fall firmly in the family’s favour, which is understandable but occasionally inhibits James from asking the tougher questions about how such lower-level cons could have transpired for years under their supervision and that of their fellow higher-ups. Sure, these infractions are downright measly when compared to the galling offences of America’s biggest banks, but the film can’t escape their inherent murkiness, in spite of the Sungs’ apparent innocence and James’ visible scrub marks.

Like so many of James’ films, Abacus is, above all, an achievement of compassionate and conscientious observation that works best when casting an unblinking eye on the central family striving to uphold their legacy. Like the Sungs, James is fully aware what their victory (or lack thereof) undoubtedly signifies for the present and future interests of an entire collective of Chinese-Americans seeking to improve their way of life. The predominant, no-frills family portrait – full of obvious care and affection but also petty in-fighting, vented frustrations and acrid joking – is unquestionably captivating, but it’s ultimately the depiction of a minority community that really lingers longest.

There are flaws in James’ modest execution, but it’s hard not to appreciate a film so uncommonly attuned to the nuances of the Chinese immigrant experience. By continually casting his camera on Chinatown’s bankers, barbers, cooks, waitstaff, shoeshiners, fruit vendors, fishmongers, shopkeepers and other, larger populace, James movingly nudges this community towards the centre, taking the necessary time to acquaint us with the individuals who so often occupy the unjust side of the American Dream.

Published 6 Oct 2016

Tags: Steve James

Anticipation.

A worthy David-and-Goliath story is tackled by one of our most serious-minded documentarians.

Enjoyment.

A nuts-and-bolts doc with a sufficiently endearing and appropriately infuriating take on a cruelly-waged case.

In Retrospect.

Not without its blind spots, but James locates both familial intimacy and a bigger picture without sentimentalising his subject.

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