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Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

June 4, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens with its main subject Robert Sung, the founder of the independent Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown, watching It’s a Wonderful Life on TV with his wife, and relating himself to the character of selfless do-gooder George Bailey.

Regardless of whether you see these comparisons as warranted or somewhat forced, it provides a dramatic framing device for the documentary’s narrative.  You see, Abacus was the only bank to be taken to court on fraud charges following the economic meltdown of 2008, with the family-owned business being seen as an easier target than the large corporations committing greater offences.

They were an example of “too big to fail” becoming “small enough to jail,” as one interviewee puts it early in the film, and their strong place within the Chinatown community, mainly serving Chinese immigrant clients, put uncomfortable racial undertones on the trial.  The question of whether the bank really was operating within a grey area of the law becomes almost irrelevant compared to the fraud committed and damage caused by the much larger banks, who got off scot-free.

Directed by Steve James, who was also responsible for the documentary triumphs Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail takes us through the trial, framing it as a sort of family saga about underdogs going up against a giant system that is trying to take them down.  The film is interesting for the ways it takes us through the financial and legal system, but it’s also engaging in the little moments when it captures its subjects interacting, becoming a portrait of how a family deals with and in some ways grows closer together while becoming involved in a court case.

Despite a somewhat overbearing score, and some moments when the financial jargon makes it all feel a little dry, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is an interesting human story of a family who was targeted by the system essentially to make an example of them.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now playing in limited release at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.


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