‘Abacus’ Questions the Virtues of the American Legal System

When director Steve James captures Chinatown's denizens during their lived-in moments, Abacus improves from a trial procedural to a cinematic vision of the American Dream under siege.

Television shows and movies capture the law as a highlight reel of spectacular trials which feature righteous winners and benighted losers. But lost in all this sensationalist bluster is the more pervasive, ugly truth about America’s legal system : it’s an aggregation of thousands of quieter trials in which there are no dramatic piques; where a tragically inert storyline of unnecessary “zero sum” adversity lumbers to an unsatisfactory ending.

Director Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams, 1994) most recent documentary Abacus: Small Enough To Jail  —  which examines the Manhattan DA’s Office’s relentless prosecution of the Sung family’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown, New York —  is successful at highlighting this unfortunate state, even if it means foregoing a compelling dramatic arc to do so.

The film’s title is the obverse of the infamous “Too Big to Fail” doctrine, which has been used to justify the US criminal justice system’s failure to criminally indict Wall Street banks after the 2008 financial crisis. Notably, white collar crime prosecution used to be more prolific in the United States  —  after the Savings and Loan Scandals of the ’80s, 839 individuals were convicted of fraud. Since then, however, the number of banks in the United States has dropped while the size of major banks has grown exponentially and taken greater control of our global economy. According to “Too Big to Fail”, prosecution of even one of those banks could have a seismic impact on the global economy, not to mention politicians’ electoral campaigns.

On the other hand, as one of the film’s interview subjects dryly notes, a 184 count criminal indictment against a small community bank like Abacus — — even if its loan approvals from 2009 to 2015 have only defaulted 16 out of 4,000 times  — would not cause any major ripples in corporate America, or during election season.

Having said that, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail — chock full of this kind of dry, skeptical reasoning against America’s justice system — can often have a one-sided feel. The nuances of the Abacus trial are generally explained away by more holistic takes on the major flaws of the People’s case, which is summarized as a strained effort to blow up a couple of fraudulent ground floor outliers into a massive systemic indictment against a bank and the unique cultural aspects of a Chinese community’s economy.

This argument is advanced solidly enough in staged interviews from Abacus’s lawyers, well-regarded progressive journalists, and the Sung family. However, it is difficult to fully buy into a legal documentary which relies on tailored interviews from the defense, with a much smaller percentage of clips from the prosecution which carried the burden of proof in the case. 

This criticism aside, the interviews make salient points which are worth watching as a template for criticisms on systemic inefficiencies in US legal culture. Perhaps the best point made by a former lawyer was that prior to the trial, Abacus had an impeccable reputation with Fannie Mae, and had cooperated with authorities as soon as they discovered the filing of fraudulent loan applications. Then why not a by far less costly solution, such as cooperative governmental supervision of Abacus’s loan approval process?

This is a question really worth getting into. However, it’s served as a mere bullet point among the film’s several others on systemic injustice, which overall is a redundant approach in a day and age when a slew of blogs, You Tube videos, and televised documentaries accomplish the same objective.

More poignant than explication on the US trial system is a small cinematic sequence where an elderly street vendor pleas for an attorney to beat a $1,000 ticket. The violation? Her vegetable cart was a few feet too long. The same pensiveness is felt when James provides a sweeping shot of homes Abacus routinely approved loans for  —  modest row houses in a densely populated borough where immigrants work and contribute to the city’s economy  —  as opposed to gaudy McMansions over sprawling, isolated land.

In these crisply edited and purposeful scenes, the film compels the audience to visually experience the potential consequences of systemic injustice. We feel this old woman’s pain and frustration. We see the democratic virtuousness of Abacus’s practice become at risk due to an arguably unnecessary criminal trial.

Likewise, when James captures the Sung family during their lived-in moments, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail improves from a trial procedural to a cinematic vision of the American Dream under siege.

The father and bank owner, Thomas Sung, is a Chinese immigrant who made his bones as a lawyer and real estate investor before founding Abacus with the goal to make loans more accessible to Chinese immigrants. He and his wife, Hwei Lin, raised four daughters  —  three of who graduated from law school, and the fourth from medical school. Every so often, Abacus treats its audience to family dinner scenes, or their work at the office, where we can see these fascinating individuals in their natural environment.

Three of the daughters who help run the bank work from an austere office seemingly blanketed by stacks of papers both from the trial and ordinary course of business. They discuss working 15 hour days while coping with the stress of criminal indictments. There’s no appearance of luxuriousness or multi-million dollar bonuses on the horizon; just more hard work and stress, whether the family “wins” or “loses” at trial. 

The family dinner scenes provide a warm, welcoming feeling of reprieve from workday rigors. The family argot is intellectually sharp and natural, with each member delivering argumentative styles that range from the father’s calm soothsaying to the elder sisters’ more fiery (yet infectiously humorous) approach. 

Indeed, seeing the Sung family in action during their time of intense duress is valuable given the increasingly bizarre world in which we live. At the same time, there’s also something both dramatically dissatisfying and disarmingly truthful about how collected the Sungs appear during their trial. Because the family handles juggling their business and enduring a five-year case with impressive efficiency and relative calm, there’s a constant feeling of equanimity in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail which borders on a pre-determined resolution.

The harsh and intensely capitalistic truth of the matter is that while Abacus may be small enough to jail, it isn’t so small as to be cornered into a plea or under- capitalized for trial. Unlike a vast majority of the world’s population, the bank had the resources to endure a case of this magnitude. But what happens to the rest of our citizenry in the face of life-changing legal matters?

James is expressly aware of this broader point, but he doesn’t choose to delve into this urgent subject. The issue of how an average working class American faces trials is yet to be thoroughly explored in documentary cinema, and there is a sense of restlessness when watching Abacus: Small Enough to Jail as to why this hasn’t been the case. The film does a solid job inspecting the Sung family and their modestly sized bank’s ordeals. However, a searching documentary on the ordeals of Chinatown street vendors may have proven to be just as interesting, if not a more dramatically resonant cinematic work.

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RATING 7 / 10