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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/22/17 23:36:11

"Topical story that works because we like the folks involved."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: The story of the one bank to get charged with crimes as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis may seem like potentially dry material, but it turns out to be involving and entertaining, in no small part because the Sung family who founded the bank are sympathetic and winning. They and their trial are the sort of subjects where a documentarian must feel like they're hit a jackpot early on, knowing the audience will have a personal stake even when the broader issues of what motivated out influenced the prosecution are a bit abstract. Watching it, one might almost think that the hardest part for director Steve James was worrying about which ending he was going to have to lead up to.

That bank was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded in the 1990s by Thomas Sung, an attorney who had been a pillar of New York's Chinatown community. It was, for the most part, a fairly well-performing lender, in large part because Sung knew his community and had a good eye for seeing which loans might be better risks than they appeared to be on paper. Of course, even if founded the business for noble reasons, by the mid-aughts Abacus had grown to be a big enough concern that the amount of money coming through was a temptation. Bad loans from one particular officer triggers a larger investigation against the backdrop of larger crimes, and soon District Attorney Cyrus Vance has decided to follow charges. Abacus is not the easy target he might have expected, though - not only is Thomas Sung a lawyer, but so are three of his daughters (two of them bank executives), and they are not the types to back down from a fight.

It's fairly clear from the start where James's sympathies lie - you don't have Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin watching It's a Wonderful Life in a film's opening minutes without drawing the line between him and George Bailey. It's a comparison that he has opportunity to return to later, when telling the story of a run on Abacus, and while it's a simple comparison, it gives the audience a fair amount of easy reference without seeming to sensationalize the story too much. This is not the same David-and-Goliath story, but it's similar, and by framing it that way, it keeps the audience from worrying too much about whatever minutiae the Sungs may have overlooked and focused on the main story of them fighting off what seems like an opportunistic prosecution of a vulnerable population.

Even with that in a viewer's head, it's still the way that James presents the Sungs that keeps the audience engaged. They turn out to be great subjects, tight-knit but cheerfully honest in their assessments of each other, with James seeing ways to play off the audience's expectations of Asian-American fathers and daughters while still showing them as individuals. And even as he's putting the "family" part of "family business" front and center, James manages to be nicely even-handed with the rest of the subjects, avoiding the temptation to cast the prosecutors as obvious villains.

It's a dedication to positivity that sometimes can seem excessive - there's a moment when one of the jurors interviewed wants to make it clear that the person causing difficulty was not the other juror that James speaks with - but it's an attitude that makes the film easier to digest. There's plenty of anger to go around here, with large banks imperiling the world economy and how, if Abacus was not targeted out of clear, knowing institutional racism, a great deal of what went down happened because the establishment makes little effort to understand immigrant communities. James takes a bit of time to get to the roots of some of these issues and explain them without ever losing sight of his main story, which can at times make the film seem lightweight, but may actually promote more understanding than trying to rile people up.

If nothing else, it makes for an interesting story, one which I suspect will eventually get a non-documentary telling (Asian-American women looking for good roles should be all over this). Topical as it is, it's also a good story, and James tells it in an inviting way.

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