Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: The Richest Man in Town, by David Bax
Two years ago, Adam McKay gave us The Big Short, a furious, funny account of the causes of 2008’s financial crisis. After that sprawling account of how massively things went wrong due to institutionalized shortcuts and routine lies, we now get Steve James’ measured and unassuming documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a look at the only bank to face criminal charges in the aftermath. While nowhere near the high water marks James set with films like Hoop Dreams, Stevie and The Interrupters, Abacus is still a modest success on the level of James’ Head Games, another issue-driven documentary that never lets you forget the individual people at the story’s core.
Abacus is the name of a bank with six locations, started in New York City’s Chinatown by a Chinese immigrant and lawyer named Thomas Sung. By 2008, Thomas was all but retired and the bank’s operation had fallen into the hands of two of his four daughters, Jill and Vera. When they noticed some inexplicable paperwork from one of their employees and got shady obfuscations in replies to their queries, they fired the man and reported his wrongdoing to the proper authorities. What those authorities found was that this man was not the only Abacus employee cutting corners and taking kickbacks. A five year investigation was launched, resulting in charges of conspiracy, larceny and systemic fraud. James picks up the story after the charges come down, following the family and the case throughout the trial.
Before we get to that, though, James introduces the Sungs to us by showing Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Thomas tells the camera how he was inspired by George Bailey to start a bank. It’s a remarkably, almost cynically, unsubtle way to ingratiate the subjects to the viewer, framing them as the underdog before we’ve even learned what they’re accused of.
Still, it’s the analogy to It’s a Wonderful Life from which James draws the most and best inspiration. Before Abacus, Thomas tells us, banks in Chinatown were not Chinese-owned and, while they were happy to take people’s money, they were far less willing to give loans to the community that would help people put down roots by buying homes and stores. Thomas wanted, specifically, to help immigrants. James leads us to consider Chinatown as a self-sustaining small community; in essence, a Bedford Falls right in the middle of New York City with its own traditions and customs. So community-minded is Thomas that, even as the trial starts to go well when his former employees repeatedly incriminate themselves but not the bank, he is chiefly concerned that people will “get the wrong impression, that Chinese are not law-abiding.”
This rewarding and welcome thread awkwardly distracts from what the film’s subtitle suggests is meant to be the main focus. Namely, why did the United States government single out the 2,651st largest bank in the company whose transgressions, though very real, pale in comparison to those of the industry’s giants in terms of both criminality and devastation done to common Americans? Despite plentiful interviews with those on the other side of the case, like District Attorney Polly Greenberg, James never gets too far down this path.
Maybe that’s because, even when taking on a capital-T Topic like this one, he can’t help indulge his humanitarian impulses. We get to know the family better than we do the details of the case, thanks to scenes like the one where Thomas’ four incredibly accomplished and capable daughters take time out of an important meeting about their trial to fret over their father’s lunch order and whether his sandwich is too dry. The way these incredible women, including Hwei Lin, dote on Thomas is touching and warmly funny. These scenes are the real centerpiece of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. It’s just unclear whether or not James understands that.