Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
(Steve James, 2016)

Thomas Sung, in a scene from Steve James' Abacus: Small Enough to Jail {Photo: KARTEMQUIN FILMS}

Thomas Sung, in a scene from Steve James' Abacus: Small Enough to Jail {Photo: KARTEMQUIN FILMS}

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail screens at the AMC River East 21 on Tuesday, October 18 at 6:00PM. For additional ticketing information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here

The release of a new Steve James film is usually cause for celebration, as the filmmaker more often than not submits something sociologically thoughtful every time he’s up to bat.  From Hoop Dreams to Stevie to The Interrupters, he’s second to possibly only Frederick Wiseman when it comes to luminous studies on the disenfranchisement of America’s lower classes. And while a Virginia native, his relationship with Chicago and Kartemquin Films makes him an adopted son of the Second City.

James takes to New York City for his new film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, where he reports on the legal battle of a Chinatown bank that became the lone U.S. institution to be charged with fraud in relation to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. The family-run bank, led by the sagacious Thomas Sung, opted to combat the federal indictment, claiming no wrongdoing. A costly, five-year legal battle would follow, with James following the Sung family as they attempt to keep Abacus afloat during the process.

While James makes the conscientious effort of interviewing the State’s prosecution attorneys, this is largely a film dedicated to the Sung family’s defense. James effectively establishes the family’s obligation to their community, serving their Chinatown district diligently with a default rate microscopically lower than any other bank related with the mortgage crisis. And while a degree of wrongdoing and fraud occurred at Abacus, James rationalizes that these grievances did not warrant the public lambasting and media circus that followed (which involved the arrested chained together for a photo opportunity).

Yet the material, with its narrative propelled by the trial’s eventual verdict, never amounts to anything especially substantive. I would hesitate to suggest that James is especially adept at building tension, and to a degree, that’s what a film like Abacus would require. The communal aspect of all his previous films are built around spontaneous actions that, in itself, triggers a sense of genuine tension. I think of a sequence in The Interrupters where a young community activist confronts Chicago teenagers during a particularly hostile exchange. The anxiety of the scene is palpable and James captures that moment with such clarity. There’s really no opportunity for that in Abacus, which is largely confined to talking head segments recounting the specifics of the trial and illustrations of the trail itself (James did not have access to the courtroom itself). It’s a slick procedural recounting by someone whose head is more geared for ardor and passion. Which is to say that this sort of investigative reporting isn’t really James’ forte. What rings most true are the tinier moments involving the Sung family, particularly one where the Sung daughters fuss over their father. There’s a candor there that illustrates what makes James such a vital filmmaker, but it’s one that we see, unfortunately, in passing glimpses.