It’s been 22 years since director Steve James released “Hoop Dreams,” and though none of his other films has had anything approaching that impact, in his quiet way he’s become a brand-name documentarian with a signature way of seeing. The captivating Roger Ebert biography “Life Itself” was an exception, but in general the qualities of a Steve James film are that it has a highly visible and passionate social conscience; it tracks its subject over time with empathy and skill; and there’s a fly-on-the-wall Zen plainness to his approach that recalls the work of Fred Wiseman. His new movie, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” falls in line with previous James efforts like “At the Death House Door” (about a Texas execution chaplain who became an anti-death penalty crusader) or “The Interrupters” (about the attempt to steer troubled Chicago youths away from violence). In this case, the angle is more overtly political: “Abacus” tells the story of a family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown that became the one and only bank in the U.S. to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. The movie is urgently made, and it’s tempting to offer a standard liberal-advocacy review of it. Yet that review wouldn’t tell the whole story.
In 1984, the Abacus Federal Savings Bank was founded by Thomas Sung, a Shanghai-born lawyer who wanted to give something back to the Chinatown community. The movie opens with the courtly and dapper Sung, now 80, and his wife watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television, as Sung explains his powerful identification with James Stewart’s George Bailey, the savings-and-loan purveyor who saved his own town from the clutches of greed. Sung, just like George Bailey, created a community hub. He provided seed money to businesses and mortgages to local residents, but in 2010 his managers spotted irregularities on the mortgage books, and traced them to a single employee — Ken Yu, who turned out to be taking bribes.
In 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted the bank and 19 of its employees, accusing Abacus of conspiracy. The key issue was: Did Sung, or any of his managers, know about the criminal activity? “Abacus” tells us that if the answer is no (slight spoiler alert: this is not a movie about how the Chinese-American George Bailey turns out to be Mr. Potter), that means that the bank was being scapegoated. Instead of going after the big guys — Lehman brothers, Bear Stearns — the government bailed the big guys out. And the little guy got blamed.
At least, that’s the thesis of “Abacus.” The movie is diligent and, to a degree, absorbing — a legal/business saga that’s also the story of a family in crisis. The Sungs, including three adult daughters who were executives at the bank, fought the charges for five years. It cost them stress, heartache, status, and $10 million. Yet if “Abacus” seems straightforward enough, it is also a slightly strange movie, because it seems to be wrestling with a monumental subject — the issue of our government’s insular relationship to corporate banks — by grabbing hold of the tip of the subject’s tail, squeezing it tight, whipping that tail to and fro, but never letting us see more than the tail. If the film is, in fact, about a real-life George Bailey, the forces arrayed against him remain hidden behind a curtain. We have to guess about the nuts and bolts that are driving the central scandal.
The key unanswered question is: What actually happened? How and why did the District Attorney decide to indict Abacus? Eight of the bank’s employees wound up pleading guilty to the charge of fraud by falsifying documents, and the incomes and job credentials of many of the borrowers had been inflated. Since the bank’s default rate was notably low (0.3 percent), this raises a question: Were the fraudulent documents a smoking gun, or were they a form of benign corner-cutting related to how business was routinely done in Chinatown? From what we’re shown, it’s hard to say; the notion that the government had some reason to consider indicting Abacus doesn’t seem out of the question. Yet the movie asks the audience to simply extrapolate that the bank was being held up as some sort of example. These days, there are many who would be quick to point a finger and say, “That sounds just like what our scoundrel government would do!” But the point is that watching “Abacus,” the audience has to do a great deal of guesswork. Cyrus Vance Jr., the New York County District Attorney, sits down for an interview and says nothing of substance, and the whole arena of evidence — what the prosecution thought it had and why — remains frustratingly vague.
By the end of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” the Sungs have been put through the wringer, but they’ve been redeemed. James’ portrait of them is engaging as far as it goes, though the Sungs don’t exactly open up their inner lives to the camera. “Abacas” turns into a domestic courtroom drama in which there is never a great deal of suspense. Yet there’s a question that hovers in the air with a kind of moral reckoning: Was the Abacus Federal Savings Bank dragged through a legal morass for five years because it was being treated, in effect, as a surrogate for the bigger banks that got bailed out? The movie wants us to raise our fists and shout, “Yes, that’s what happened. And it’s an outrage!” Instead, you may feel like raising your hand and asking “Is that really what happened? If so, it’s an outrage! Now please show us some evidence.”