There has to be a bit of irony that the government doesn't really go after PBS documentaries. This movie isn't rated and I'm not at all shocked. There's really nothing really wrong in terms of content here. Yeah, you could show it to your kids free of fear. Just assume that your kids are totally into the minutia of the housing crisis. But there's nothing really here. I don't think that there is even a use of bad language. They're probably saving all of that for the uncensored, too-hot-for-TV DVD.
DIRECTOR: Steve James
I guarantee you that director Steve James was secretly hoping for a different ending. It would have spiked that ball right where it needed to go and he could just run up on the stage, holding his Oscar and scream "This is for the Sung family!" That probably won't happen. This is the first of the Oscar Nominated docs I've watched, but even with the first few minutes of Icarus under my belt, I can see where the wind is blowing. There's an Aleppo documentary that's nominated. I don't know if Icarus is the story that wants to be told. That said, I've been surprised before. For all we know, the people voting just chose alphabetically instead of watching them all. (I hear that happens.)
Abacus is a fascinating story that has an inherent problem with it. The people actually screwed up. For those who have no idea what this documentary is about, Abacus: Small Enough to Fail is about the one bank that the government went after in the housing crisis. This is a small bank located in Chinatown that serves the Chinese community there. During the housing crisis, several lower level bankers at the Abacus staff actively took part in loan fraud. When the upper management discovered this, they reported the fraud to Fannie May, which actually made those upper managers the target of a police investigation. The documentary really comes down to "Can the managers prove that they knew nothing of this fraud?" and that kind of seems improvable. That being said, that's the center of justice in America, that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thang. The movie goes to great lengths to show the moral fortitude of Mr. Sung, the 78 year old founder of Abacus. Casting him in the shadow of George Bailey by means of showing clips from It's a Wonderful Life, Sung is shown as the banker who wanted to serve his underserved and undervalued community. This is done primarily through testimony by Sung himself. It is supported by a few light comments by other members of the Chinese community along with his children, but there isn't a ton of outside research into this. There isn't a wave of people all coming forward saying, "If Mr. Sung hadn't such and such, I wouldn't be the man I am today." The documentary definitely takes the side of the Sung family and it is probably pretty accurate. I'm not so much asking for a conviction of the Sung family. I want the documentary to find something else outside of a man's conviction that he's a good man. If someone keeps telling me, "I'm a good person", guess what I'm going to think. (That he's a good person. I'm a very trusting individual.) There's also the bigger problem of the fact that this is a story of corruption v. incompetence. I really hope that the Sungs had no involvement in the fraud. They seem like nice people. But in that scenario, they lost customers' money for years and didn't notice that the bulk of their loans department was stealing money from Fannie Mae. There's this constant comment of the fact that their reputation will be forever ruined because the FCC dragged them into court unjustly. That's not at all true. They should have gone to court. They should have been found innocent, but wrongdoing was done and it was very suspicious. Abacus as an institution failed to protect their customers from their very institution. What am I really fighting for?
The documentary is pretty fascinating though. Any time it comes down to a court case, there is an element of reading the room. I'm always convinced there is going to be a mockery of the justice system because that's what makes the movie fascinating. I don't think, as a culture, we care about court cases that play out the way it is supposed to. James, as a filmmaker, kind of is aware of that feeling as he makes this documentary. I genuinely believe that there were some prejudices involved on the jury. There's one moment, and this might be truly telling in terms of what the climate of the time was, that a juror refused to vote "Not Guilty" because a message had to be sent to the banking system. There is actually a line in the trial tapes that say that "you can't do that." In terms of building up suspense --and this seems awfully flippant considering that I'm talking about real people's real lives here --the documentary does what trial films do. SPOILERS BECAUSE I HATE BEATING AROUND THE BUSH LIKE I AM: The "not guilty" verdict almost goes against the movie that James is trying to make. The movie, like many movies about similar subject matters, focuses on a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes up a cultural community. It focuses on the ignorance of white America while implying that many non-Chinese people are racist towards the Chinese community. I know that this is a truth. I know it. When James was on the ground with the Sung family, I'm sure he experienced that bigotry first hand. But the movie keeps telling me about this bigotry, but never actually shows it. If anything, the movie shows both individuals and corporations go out of their way to try to identify and communicate with the Asian community. The movie has the problem of telling me one thing, but rarely ever showing me the other side. The odd thing is that I believe the words that are told me. It's just that I keep hearing it from Mr. Sung, the guy who is on trial for possibly defrauding a whole bunch of people. Yeah, I don't believe he did it, but the only word I have is his. I kind of have that problem with The Blind Side. We assume that the people on trial didn't do it because they seem like nice people. That's nothing that actually makes me believe you.
This is a dry subject matter. I don't even like writing about it. This review is not fun for me because I have no desire to break down the 2008 housing crisis. That seems boring to me. But the movie does a fairly solid job of keeping my attention despite the fact that I really don't care too much about this matter. I know. I'm a bad person when it comes to keeping up with current events and, in particular, a moment that destroyed families. But banking is dull. The thing that really got me invested in the story was actually a person who is kept fairly out of reach: Ken Yu. Ken Yu is clearly the bad guy in this story. Everyone hates Ken Yu. He's the guy who they caught red handed and got fired from Abacus for loan fraud. This guy sucks. I wondered the entire time why he wasn't in the movie proper. There are drawings and photos of him with an award that is written poorly. A re-enactor reads all of his testimony from the trial and I loved wondering what happened to that guy. For a while, I felt kind of bad for this guy who didn't get to give his side of the interview. The reason, and I only found this out at the end, is that he was in prison for doing all of these things. That makes me so happy. That is such a great moment in what could have been an otherwise boring movie. I know that it wasn't all the housing crisis stuff that bored me because I loved The Big Short. I think the big problem is that the movie attempts to demonize the investigative community for even bringing charges against the Sungs. I know that the results were fairly minor, but I didn't really see the trial as unnecessary. There were all these documentary moments where they are clearly painting interviews in a bad light. But I kept thinking about what the interviewees were saying and I kind of respected it. There was this part where the lead investigator said "A crime was committed. It happened to work out for everyone, but the crime was still committed. They gambled with other people's money and you can't do that." The movie then pans over to one of the daughters and said that "We made Fannie Mae money. What's the harm?" It was in this moment that I realized that this trial needed to happen. I keep saying this and I believe it, but I'm glad the Sungs were acquitted. But there was wrongdoing and I don't really respect the documentary for continuing to play the "why even bring this up?" card. Just because the big guys got away with it, doesn't mean the small guys should. More along the lines of, "They should have gone after the big guys too."
It's interesting enough. I don't see this as a documentary that deserves the Academy Award. If I was still a channel flipper, I would have put this one when I was feeling lazy. The problem is that you are going to ask me a year from now any details about this and I won't remember a darn thing. I don't think that makes for an amazing documentary.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.