The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath have been dramatized in such surprisingly effective films as “The Big Short” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016). In his documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself”) looks at one of the real-life dramas behind the scandal. It’s a story of family, immigrant communities and scapegoating — as well as a rare case in which you end up rooting for the bank.
Thomas Sung, whose family came from China to the United States in 1951, was frustrated by financial institutions that were reluctant to lend money to immigrants in New York’s Chinatown, so in 1984 he founded Abacus Federal Savings to serve that community. But in 2010, Abacus became the only American bank to be indicted on charges of fraud in the wake of the subprime mortgage scandal.
James depicts Sung as a small-town banker in the mold of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s beloved character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, the movie opens with Sung and his wife watching that Christmas perennial, which makes for an apt parallel: Like Bailey, Sung lent money to benefit neighborhood businesses, not just to make a profit. With his tall, lean frame and unassuming demeanor, Sung even bears a passing resemblance to Stewart. So from the start, “Abacus” stacks the deck in favor of its subject. Just look at this guy, the film seems to say. How can you convict George Bailey?
Notwithstanding the merits of the case and the film’s manipulative framing, James presents a convincing narrative of a bank staff tainted by one bad apple, who operated without the knowledge of upper management (including Sung’s daughters Jill, the bank’s president, and Vera, its director). In fact, when they discovered something awry about a loan application, the Sung daughters themselves brought it to the attention of the regulating agency. But they soon became the target of an investigation led by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
The film is persuasive in suggesting that Abacus was — in contrast with major banks that escaped prosecution because they were “too big to fail” — an easy target to be made an example of (hence, its subtitle). Sung and his family fought the charges during a trial that lasted for months. Using drawings and courtroom testimony, James creates a tense courtroom drama out of seemingly dry material. Much of the film’s appeal is from the quiet determination of the patriarch Sung, unflappable under the stress, and the family and community who rally around him.
By comparing the case to an almost universally admired movie, however, the film seems to argue that justice is best served by sympathy. “Abacus” tells an endearing tale of a family that fought the government. But the question of justice may be another matter. In the end, it becomes clear that Sung’s customers operate under a different cultural standard than that of larger banks, bringing to mind a line from another, more cynical film: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language. In English, Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles. 88 minutes.
The theater will host Q&As with director Steve James and members of the Sung family following the 7:30 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24; James will also appear at a Q&A following the 1 p.m. show on Sunday, June 25.