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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

Abacus: Smaill Enough to Jail


Featuring Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Chanterelle Sung, Heather Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Matt Taibbi, Cyrus Vance Jr., Neil Barofsky, Ti-Hua Chang, Millie DiPentima, Jiayang Fan, Roman Fuzaylov, Polly Greenberg, Linda Hall, Mohammad Kahn, Don Lee, David Lindorf, Kevin Puvalowski, Jeannie Rose Rubin, Sam Talkin, Rusty Wing, Yiu Wah Wong and Jessica Woodby-Denema.

Directed by Steve James.

Distributed by Kartemquin Films. 90 minutes. Not Rated.

During the financial crisis of 2008, many of the largest financial institutions were destroyed or disgraced for their fast and loose evasions of legal standards, particularly when it came to mortgages. However, for all these huge banks, many of which were bailed out by our tax dollars, none of them were charged for the crimes they perpetrated. At the time, the term “too big to fail” was the rallying cry, if these huge institutions went under it may very well scuttle the global economy.

In fact, only one bank was ever brought to court for mortgage fraud – Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small family-owned and operated bank which served the community of New York’s Chinatown. They were not too big to fail, as Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi says in this documentary about the case, they were “small enough to jail.” While the Sung family, who had owned the bank for 30 years, strongly claimed their innocence, it can’t be denied that at least some of their employees were guilty. However, was it just a bunch of rogue loan officers, or was it something more systemic to the bank?

And in that volatile financial period, would they be made an example of, while other larger lending institutions were getting golden parachutes?

Documentary maker Steve James, best known for the basketball doc Hoop Dreams, filmed much of the five-year journey through the courts and the court of public opinion, with the family at the eye of the storm.

They come off as an honorable, community-oriented and honest clan, one who tries to get in front of the crisis and cooperate fully with the investigation, and were shocked as New York prosecutor Cyrus Vance seemed to be trying to make an example of them and humiliate them. As one financial reporter points out, if you are going to take on a bank to make an example of, a family business situated between two noodle shops would seem like an easy target. They would not have the resources for all the legal representation they needed.

One thing that Vance did not take into account was that all of the members of the Sung family were also lawyers – in fact daughter Chanterelle Sung worked on his own legal team.

Therefore, David took on Goliath (I’m sorry, I don’t know a Chinese equivalent for that story) to not only save the family name, but also to continue its vital presence in the community.

Of course, while we do get Vance and one or two other prosecutors insisting in Abacus’ guilt, we mostly hear from the family and the community and people who are on their side. While we would like to believe that they are being truthful, because they appear to be honorable people, in the film it seems to be taken for granted that they are being railroaded. I wish the film showed a little more proof on that front.

I’d also like it if the film showed more of what some of the other banks did, but I suppose that is a different story.

However, the film works well at showing the Chinatown community and the bank’s part in the lifestyle. And it works well at showing the Kafka-esque nightmare of being a small family in the crosshairs of a bureaucratic investigation.

Throughout the film, there is a running theme about the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is family patriarch Thomas Sung’s favorite movie, and that he had opened the bank in order to serve his community like Jimmy Stewart’s character did in that family favorite.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail does not end with an angel getting its wings. However, it does run parallel to that film in one way – sometimes family and friends are all that is necessary to survive life’s worst dilemmas.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: June 16, 2017.

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