A David and Goliath tale of simultaneously familial and federal proportions, Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail exposes the big bad establishment’s attempted scapegoating of an NYC Chinatown community bank at the time of the mortgage loan collapse.
Possessed of the same defiant resilience that the Sung family are forced to exhibit when charges were laid against them for supposedly propagating faulty, fraudulent loans, there’s no disguising on whose side James sits as his largely subdued, procedural film charts the five-year court struggle for what we are led to believe is a just outcome. There may have been a few rotten apples at the bank out for an easy buck, but how high up the food chain did the complicity in these schemes go?
With just six branches and sitting at 2651st in US banking charts in terms of size, there is an understandable sense of disbelief and incredulity from the off in Abacus. Unable to pick on someone their own size – given the potentially devastating repercussions for the global economy – the New York DA and Federal National Mortgage Associate (referred to throughout by its diminutive, maternally reassuring nickname Fanny Mae) go after one of the smallest fish in a very large pond. It is Thomas Sung, the founder and owner of the bank, along with his feisty set of daughters, who refuses to lie down faced with the might of the US injustice system.
To suggest Abacus was responsible for the mortgage crisis is laughable by any reckoning but baying for blood, and in an attempt to make an example of someone, anyone, the proceedings last for weeks, months and years. James stops short of making explicit suggestion of a racial motivation to these proceedings but the dishonour caused by this plight, the fact the Chinese community – according to one interviewee – was “easy prey” and the recollection of one particularly troubling, humiliating instance when the accused were paraded in front of cameras chain-ganged together, opens out this expose to the broader treatment of minorities when focussed on the persecution of one family unit.
Talking heads appear throughout but James allows the Sungs to squabble and talk over one another which lends a refreshing messiness to conversations of deeply intelligent and eloquent individuals. Elsewhere, subjects react to one another’s on-camera testimony, providing slightly fractious moments, and the director’s method of reconstructing speech directly from the trial over pastel-drawn courtroom images allows for a greater concentration on and identification with the issues at hand.
In spite of the overarching liberal, stick-it-to-the-man bias of the film, the director does attempt to redress some semblance of objectivity by featuring one juror who came down in the guilty camp of a split jury. We do reach a verdict here and though there is not the tear-inducing catharsis of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which the family are shown to watch and use as a touchpoint for their own struggle, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail does build to a quietly engrossing climax and worthy championing of raging, albeit moderately, against the machine.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now available to buy or rent on Amazon Video. amzn.eu/8R4Ll3b
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens