You’d never think a bank would be the David in a David and Goliath story, but such is the case in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the latest documentary from Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams director Steve James. At the center is the Sung family, whose patriarch, Thomas Sung, founded Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s. The recurring references to It’s a Wonderful Life from Thomas (who fancies himself Jimmy Stewart’s small-town heart of gold, triumphing amid financial woes) give the film the backbone for its American dream. Or an American nightmare, as Abacus became the only bank indicted during the 2008 financial crisis.
The prosecution, led by District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., is the Goliath here, using evidence of the bank’s corrupt loan officers to fault the entire company and attempting to bring Abacus Federal down as the recession’s scapegoat. James spins a fascinating and complex web involving lies, fraud, a months-long trial with a hung jury, and cultural biases against Abacus and the immigrant Chinese community it serves. By focusing on the Sungs, he puts real, human faces to this corporation, leaving little doubt they’re the ones to root for. The headaches of working out all the components of this incredible case are assuaged by the charisma of Mr. and Mrs. Sung and their sharp-witted daughters, who, when not fighting the system, are endearingly bickering with each other. A scene as banal as Thomas picking through a dry sandwich as his daughters squabble over the lack of mayo is as engrossing as the courtroom drama.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Directed by Steve James
Opens May 19, IFC Center