After the 2007 financial crisis, only one US bank was indicted on charges related to mortgage fraud: Abacus Federal Savings Bank , in New York’s Chinatown. The 2,651st-largest bank in the United States, Abacus was anything but “too big to fail” — hence the subtitle of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Steve James’s impressively economical documentary folds together the events that led to the case, the place of Abacus in the Chinese-American community, the 2015 trial, and its aftermath.
Best of all, “Abacus” is also a family saga. At times, it feels a little like Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” — which, as it happens, came out the same year as James’s best-known documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” 1994.
Thomas Sung arrived in the United States from Shanghai, at 16, became a lawyer, and founded Abacus 30 years later. “It was time for me to do something for the society,” he says. All four of his daughters became lawyers, too, three of them working for the bank: Vera, Heather, and Jill. His wife, Hwei Lin, kept away from it. That James captures the family dynamics so well should come as no surprise. Such documentaries as “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself” (2014) have demonstrated his affinity for personality and character.
The indictments were brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. James interviews him and the prosecutor who argued the case, though it’s apparent whose side the film takes. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, the daughter not working for the bank, Chantarelle, the youngest, was an assistant DA under Vance. She resigned when the indictments were announced.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Abacus as a community institution is that during the five years between indictment and verdict, it stayed in business. A Chinatown activist says of the trial, “It’s about exonerating our entire community.” He adds, “I told Mr. Sung, I’m glad they picked on you, because you’re a fighter.”
Fighter is an understatement. Utterly unflappable, Sung projects a cool, lawyerly manner. He needed every ounce of that unflappability. The case involved 248 counts, on four charges: falsifying business records, residential mortgage fraud, grand larceny, and conspiracy. The trial took four months, with 600,000 pages of documents brought as evidence. The Sungs eventually spent $10 million in litigation costs.
Some of the best scenes show the family gathering after court sessions to discuss strategy, support each other, and vent. James covers the trial through audio recordings, courtroom sketches, after-the-fact juror interviews, and readings from witness testimony. Blessedly, flashiness is not his style. The closest James comes is including several clips from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The distance from Chinatown to Bedford Falls is less than you might think. “Abacus” begins with the elder Sungs watching the movie on television. Hwei Lin says that it always makes her cry.
She may not have a law degree, but she gets off the best line in the documentary. Much later, when it’s mentioned that Vance was in the back of the courtroom during closing arguments, Hwei Lin nods. “I’ve seen him on TV.” Pause. “He’s much smaller in person.”
ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL
Directed by Steve James. At Coolidge Corner. 90 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, a single excremental expletive is uttered).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.