Review: Abacus, the unlikely scapegoats of the global financial crisis

Names like Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America are synonymous with the 2008 global financial crisis.

But you've probably never heard of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was - astoundingly - the only one in the United States to face criminal fraud charges in the wake of the collapse.

The surprisingly captivating documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail explains what unfolded when investigators came knocking on the door of the tiny, family-run bank based in New York's Chinatown.

One rogue employee led them there; what followed was a months-long criminal trial which consumed the lives of the Sung family - dad Thomas, mum Hwei Lin and their daughters, two of whom are involved in running Abacus.

Acclaimed documentary maker Steve James directs, and it initially feels like he is on a hiding to nothing, trying to make a film about court, finance, banks and government prosecutors. There seems to be no good guy, nobody to root for.

But by exploring the vibrant community which motivated Thomas Sung to found the bank, the story takes on another dimension. It's not just about the money-go-round. Abacus serves a thriving immigrant population - but it's one with a history of being marginalised and turned into an easy target.

Why did the big banks get away with paying fines to make their wrongdoing go away, while defendants from Abacus - with its comparatively tiny percentage of loan default rates - got paraded before the cameras like a "Stalinist-looking chain gang", as one journalist put it?

The film clearly sympathises with Abacus, but neither side gets off lightly. Claims and counterclaims are made and answered in frank interviews with people from both sides of the case - and even a couple of jurors.

There's a little bit of jargon to wade through but this is overall a pleasantly engaging watch.

Four stars.

* Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is playing at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival.


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