Film Review

The Chinatown Bank That Could

Steve James Shines a Spotlight on Abacus

At face value, it seems peculiar that one of the finest naturalistic documentarians would zero in on Abacus, a small family-owned bank that services New York Chinatown residents. But it’s more peculiar that New York persecutors would target Abacus on charges of fraud, making it the only bank to face criminal charges from the mortgage crisis of 2008. And so the narrative here is on the subtitle: small enough to jail, whereas giants like Chase and Citigroup were deemed too big to fail during the crisis. It’s hard not to contextualize the charge on Abacus as a scapegoat.

Steve James allows the many layers of Abacus’ indictment and ensuing trial to unravel over each other. At the center, there is a family narrative. Thomas Sung helped found Abacus and his daughters currently hold many of the leadership positions at the company; this puts them in the spotlight. Their family dynamic, mostly seen through family meals and group meetings, grounds the legal fight that often obfuscates the human players. If there’s any qualms, its James’ hands-off approach, which undersells the grueling length of the trial (five years).

The broader context provides more substantial content–at least in regards to value. Punishing a small bank when larger banks get slaps on the wrist and targeting specifically a bank that services the Chinatown community, are two overarching themes that highlight the wide-reaching implications of this specific case. The many talking heads do a good job offering insight into the unusual harshness. Journalist Jiayang Fan draws important connections on the unique relationships and cultural connections a bank like Abacus possesses, and how the government might punish that.

The film is able to stack each level of Abacus and its importance to the family, the community and the larger society, with an efficient sense of linear progression. This effectiveness allows James to power through many topics with clarity, but does make the film feel a bit dry–especially given the topic. There’s also more room to expand in regards to the immigrant experience and the justice system, but it’s admirable to find a documentary dedicated to exploring the specificities of something, without resorting to prying or pushing. With the film, James proves that while Abacus might be small enough to jail, it’s also small enough to care.