In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after countless billions of dollars had been squandered by the biggest financial institutions in America and American taxpayers were forced to bail them out, only one bank was facing criminal charges.

Some behemoth of Wall Street? A major lender that traveled in thousands of bad mortgages?

No. The accused was the quaintly named Abacus Federal Savings, a small concern consisting of four branches in New York City’s Chinatown that catered to the Chinese immigrant community. Founded by Thomas Sung, who’s approaching 80 as the film unfolds, it is the 2,651st largest bank in America, which is not very large at all.

That apparently means nothing to valiant New York district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. who, rather than pursuing the serious, big bucks bad banks, decides this small family concern is an inviting (read: easy) target.

It turns out that Abacus had a worm working in its loan department who was falsifying loan applications and taking kickbacks and bribes. How did the district attorney find out about this worm? Abacus outed him. And then the DA offered the worm immunity to testify against his former employer. Boy, that’s justice.

The respected documentary filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) found out about this early on and he follows the case with no one knowing how things will turn out.

The resulting film, “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail,” is a gripping, slow revelation at the same time that it’s also both a portrait of a tight community with its own set of norms and a study of the high-achieving Sung family (Sung’s daughters manage the bank).

It’s also a near-laughable example of wrong-headed prosecution. Except the Sungs and the people of Chinatown are at real risk, so there’s very little laughing going on. “Abacus” is probably the only film made in the past decade that could get an audience rooting for a bank, but it does just that.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘Abacus: Small Enough To Jail’


Not rated

Running time: 88 minutes

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