By Ray Pride

Docs on Box: “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail” and “100-Year-Old Lovebirds”

Deceptively minor-key Steve James, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail is best in moments that add up to an intent portrait of the family fissures in a case on the sidelines of the 2008 financial crisis. The Chinese immigrant Sung family’s six-branch Abacus Federal Savings in New York City’s Chinatown was the only bank to be criminally charged (for loan fraud and 200 other alleged violations), an indictment and trial across five years that required the bank—and its founding family—to defend the bank’s standing in the community, as well as to redeem themselves. Founder Thomas Sung has an unlikely figure from whom he drew inspiration: George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, who believed in building community through investing in the homes and businesses of Bedford Falls. Portraying the drawn-out trial, so many socioeconomic factors and issues are introduced, discussed, argued. Larger implications abound.

The nineteen charged employees crossed boundaries, but were the higher-ups, the Sungs, aware of what was done in their name? The saga comes back to the Sungs, making the movie less concerned with fiscal maneuverings and misprisions of prosecutorial zeal than family, with an underlying current of institutional racism. James excels at drawing out the dynamics of extended families under stress (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) and Abacus is no exception. Premieres on Frontline, Tuesday, September 12.

My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Byeong-man Jo and Kang Gye-Yeol have been together for seventy-six years. In the sublime My Love, Don’t Cross That River, a huge success in South Korea, writer-director-cinematographer Mo-young Jin watches the “101-old lovebirds” (as the 98-year-old Byeong-man Jo and his wife, the 89-year-old Kang Gye-Yeol are dubbed) for just over a year as they move through their day in traditional Korean raiment, inseparable from first light to final dark. At first, they are almost unbearably adorable. But sentiment surpasses sentimentality. Jin’s canny observation and cutting goes beneath the surface and into the bloodstream. What could have been in many hands autumnal sap or old-folks-sploitation is instead a document of the day-to-day tenderness of a long-lasting, even lifelong bond few couples experience in any culture. The ending, which we are prepared for in the sere, winter-set opening, is a thundercrack, earned, true, heartbreaking. Time stops. Time goes on. There is weeping. Premieres on POV in September; streaming here

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch