By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Director Steve James, the mastermind of award-winning documentary films such as “Hoop Dreams” and “Stevie,” knows that his new film works on a verbal level, at least as much as its visual level. Indeed, knock out the images from “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” and the voices would tell the story quite well. You’d need the introductions to each character that the screen provides, but those could come through audio.
And in a peculiar way, the names aren’t important. They matter to the historical record, certainly. But the story of the Manhattan (New York City) District Attorney’s Office, versus Abacus Federal Savings Bank, makes sense to anyone who’s ever heard of Goliath versus David. Only, in this case, David is a family. A very determined Chinese American family.
We meet Thomas Sung, who came to America as a teenager, worked very hard, and helped found Abacus in 1984 to make life easier for folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and anyone else who wanted to tune in. In the documentary’s only major failing, James throws in plenty of footage from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” featuring James Stewart as a banker in roughly Sung’s position. Stewart’s character in that classic dramatic film was too good to be true.
Sung doesn’t need to be too good to be true, to be compelling. The film covers what he meant to do, what he in fact did, how the community benefitted, and how the authorities decided to make an example of Abacus, because somebody had to pay for the financial crisis of 2008. The Sungs tried to explain how they discovered the employee responsible for the wrongdoing, fired him, and reported him. That wasn’t enough.
But we also meet Sung’s family, notably his daughters Jill, Chanterelle, and Vera, who ended up at Abacus, even though their father tried to talk them out of the family business. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office made a serious mistake in picking on a family saturated with lawyers, the patriarch included.
But even with a mighty offense and family dedication, you can’t guarantee ‘not guilty’ verdicts in the more than 200 charges generated in this case. James’ camera follows the Sungs through family dinners that stretch out into strategy sessions, through nervous waiting in offices. The family apparently gave the director carte blanche for this footage, and from it a deeper portrait emerges.
How do they cope with the possibility of prison for some of them, at least? With ruin, the dissolution of Abacus, a lifetime’s dreams dashed?
They keep calm. Cutting, sometimes, towards their enemies. But calm. And here, James’ visuals become important, for what isn’t happening. No hysterics, no Martin Shkreli boasting. No weeping. They want the best outcome, but they’re prepared for the worst.
I’ll save the outcome for you to discover. By the end, though, we’ve seen the true mettle of the Sung family, and the people standing with them in Chinatown. That’s more important, in the end, than the fall of the final gavel.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” plus some video supplements to the documentary, are available for viewing at pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/abacus.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.