In May of 2012, the state of New York indicted the Abacus Federal Savings Bank on numerous charges of fraud, in what’s often referred to as the one criminal case that resulted from the 2008 mortgage crisis. The punchline to those lone criminal charges—as it’s told in this film by Hoop Dreams  director Steve James—is that Abacus didn’t even contribute to the crisis (the default rate on their clients, even then, was reported to be astronomically low). However, crimes were indeed being committed at its branches, by employees and by clients: The former were often bilking whatever they could get out of credit applicants, while the latter were often listing incomes much larger than what they claimed for tax purposes. Among those charged in the indictments were members of the Sung family—patriarch Thomas Sung originally founded the bank, and two of his four daughters, Vera and Jill, now work there in executive positions. Utilizing direct-to-camera interviews with journalists, prosecutors, and jurors on the case, James’ film works to prove one fact indisputably: that the Sungs had no personal involvement in the crimes, and that the state essentially chose them as scapegoats for the whole crisis (a choice many suspect was motivated by institutional racism—a suspicion not helped by the fact that the NYPD chained the whole family together, in a truly inhumane display, for their perp walk). One of the journalists present for those interviews is Matt Taibbi, who sums up the film’s thesis aptly: “If you were going to pick a bank to pick on, a family-owned company wedged between a couple of noodle shops in Chinatown is about as easy a target as you could possibly pick.”
Another journalist interviewed for the film is Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for the New Yorker who reported on the Abacus trial for that publication. The resulting article, “The Accused” (originally published in October 2015), covers much of the same ground as James’ film—even following some of the same digressions (in one such case, both the article and the film set aside time to investigate the vague line between a “loan” and a “gift” among Chinese family members). The film does capture some things that printed journalism cannot: primarily, the charisma of the Sung family. James includes a scene of the Sungs arguing over a boardroom table following a day in court; after a minute or two, they’re all ranting over one another, to the extent that you can’t discern a single word; the sound design of it is borderline Altmanesque. It’s a great scene, and it’s very indicative of the way that the Sungs’ “performances” provide the film with its momentum. But this is a complicated, mixed-up story—one where nobody’s following the law to the letter and each side’s ethics have been rigorously defined by different cultures. And in exploring the full complexity of it, Fan’s writing is the far superior work. She captures what this film does not: the community around the bank itself, independent of the Sungs. “The Accused” includes a number of perspectives that James’ film declines to investigate, such as immigrants who were defrauded by the bank and former employees who no longer work there. One person in that latter category offers a complaint that, if rewritten a slight bit, could be applied to this film just as well: “I thought the D.A.’s office might address the bigger, systemic problem of tax evasion in Chinatown … but they chose to draw this stupid parallel between Abacus and the financial crisis.” Abacus does end with a montage of medium shots profiling unidentified members of the Chinatown community, but it only reveals the film’s own confusion—they’re not the people who the movie actually hears. This is a film about a family.
THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCCURS IN MAINE 9.14–17. FOR INFORMATION REGARDING FULL PASSES ($95-195), INDIVIDUAL TICKETS ($10), AND THE FESTIVAL SCHEDULE, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG/CIFF
ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL SCREENS AT CIFF ON SAT 9.16 AT THE CAMDEN OPERA HOUSE. 4PM. FILMMAKER STEVE JAMES IN ATTENDANCE. THE FILM IS ALSO CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON DVD.