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Home / Film / Genres / Documentaries / TIFF, NYFF Movie Review: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ Oscar Nominated Documentary
Thomas Sung, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James
Thomas Sung, Founder of Abacus Bank, 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,' directed by Steve James (courtesy of the film)

TIFF, NYFF Movie Review: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ Oscar Nominated Documentary

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail by Steve James nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature Category sends an alarm to every thinking citizen in our culture. Indeed, the film reminds Americans of what remains crucial for a democracy to function. Equitable justice and accountability must thrive. Often it doesn’t. The film’s power is that it shines a light on the hypocrisies of the financial industry. And it reveals the corrupt marriage of banking corporations to our government “regulators” and politicians. This is why only one small family bank was held accountable for the mortgage debacle that caused what many have referred in the late 2000’s as the Second Great Depression. Though the economy is allegedly doing well, the aftershocks of that economic financial crises are ongoing.

Notably, the documentary made the rounds of major film festivals. These included TIFF and NYFF, PIFF, PFF. Additionally, it won an Audience Award at the Sarasota Film Festival. And it garnered critical awards, a Critics Choice Documentary Award and an award from the National Board of Review. Indeed, its chances of winning an Oscar appear bright. Why? Perhaps because of its currency with immigration themes. And maybe because the film strikes empathy in the hearts of citizens who are grateful to be in a country of opportunity.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Thomas Sung, Founder Abacus Bank
Thomas Sung, Founder Abacus Bank, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’ (courtesy of the film)

Always, Steve James approaches the story of Abacus Bank and the Sung family with truth and realism. Though his camera appears to record a Cinéma vérité on the ground record, it captures much more. With incisive editing, James shapes the narrative. Cogently, James presents an insider’s view of a family betrayed by American ideals. These are ideals scorched by the tremendous pressure the family undergoes to obtain justice. James’ hours of filming yield a magnificent portrait of the Sung family in an intensely human drama. So much so that we identify them as our family. As we become like them, the differences between us in culture and background disappear.

Incisively, James’ revelations of each family member as they confront the allegations against their family business starkly compel us toward truth.  Gradually, James unfolds their story explaining the American iconic symbols which Mr. Sung embraced throughout his life. Interestingly, we discover that we embrace these concepts and ideas as well. For these values uplift community, safety, the pursuit of our dreams with the support of family. Furthermore, opportunities realized in an embracing nation allow new citizens to prosper and thrive.

These concepts of the best of what America stands for the Sungs imbued with ethics and honor in their community of Chinatown. Unfortunately, what they received embodies the American nightmare of injustice, discrimination, and inequality based on their cultural identity. Claridly, James refines each of these elements with video testimony from all involved so that one conclusion remains. We believe that the system wronged the Sungs and treated them unjustly. And as go the Sungs, there we go also.

Mrs. Sung, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Mrs. Sung, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ (courtesy of the film)

Paradoxically, the case about Abacus Community Savings Bank generally aligns with some of George Bailey’s backstory in It’s a Wonderful Life, a film with which bank Founder Thomas Sung identifies. Conclusively, George Bailey helps his community as does Thomas Sung. For both provided opportunities and mortgages to those who couldn’t afford homes without help.

However, in the case of the Sungs, the Chinese culture and community empowered Thomas Sung to a different process. And the cultural approach Sung took, Fannie Mae gave its blessing to. Their banking encompassed an unusual accommodation. Chinese immigrants work with cash and do not provide paper trails of their assets. Thus, the bank granted loans based on thousands of dollars of cash in hand, not on paper. Because the Founder and bank officials knew the businesses they worked with first hand for decades, agreements in cash and family gifts of large amounts of money abounded. Indeed, this is the legal immigrant Chinese way.

Sadly, one of their employees took advantage of this situation and defrauded a client and stole her cash for her mortgage deal. When the CEO Jill Sung learned of this, she fired the employee and did due diligence with federal agencies. However, this cornerstone of business which always served for decades ran into mud during the mortgage debacle. The New York D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. and Chief, D.A.’s Major Economic Crimes Bureau Polly Greenberg recognized an opportunity. Finally, this bank could be the cornerstone of justice delivered during the mortgage debacle. And they could deliver the justice on a silver platter and receive the fullness of glory. A bank would be held accountable when no banks had been.

Jill Sung, Vera Sung, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James
(L to R): Jill Sung, Vera Sung, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’ directed by Steve James (courtesy of the film)

However, a problem remained: only nine loans may have been compromised. Thus, investigators turned the only criminal of the bank into a cooperating witness to collect damning information. Ironically, all around them in the city, banks like Washington Mutual, New Century Financial, Citigroup, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs sold overrated mortgage portfolio securities full of bad mortgages. In the case of Washington Mutual and New Century Financial, the companies went bankrupt.

Precisely because of greed, traders and bank CEOs who shorted the market caused the Second Great Depression with toxic mortgages. Furthermore, global economies suffered an untold misery still being experienced today. And bankruptcies, defaults, foreclosures, bail-outs and world-wide chaos continued for years. Yet, the New York D.A. and staff reacted as if Abacus embodied all the pernicious evils of the abusive financial system. None of the big banks, considered too big to fail, closed. Additionally, none of their CEOs, officials and Wall Street ratings agencies responsible for the frauds landed in jail. Only the small Chinese community bank could be prosecuted. After all, how much of a fight could the Chinese put up?

In the midst of these looming hypocrisies, Vance Jr. and Greenberg worked frenetically to indict Abacus Bank on many charges. They remained convinced that they obtained the evidence leading right to the top of the chain, the CEO and executives whom they believed networked a conspiracy to commit fraud.

Ti-Hua Chang, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Chinatown
Ti-Hua Chang, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’ (courtesy of the film)

The absolute beauty of this documentary lies in how James chronicles the five years long case of Abacus Bank. Through video testimonies of the Sung family, their lawyers, Vance Jr., Greenberg and investigative journalists who followed the case (i.e. Ti-Hua Chang), the picture comes clear. Additionally, James collects the testimony of many others and backs up the narrative with facts, details, opinions to show the arc of development of the trial and the arduous jury deliberation. Also, he includes the testimony of two jurors.

For the trial, James uses sketches and drawings of the Sung family, their counsel, the judge and the prosecution and their witnesses. What James develops is a story of immigrant dreams realized in hard work and reliance. He reveals the return of giving to one’s cultural community. From that comes success, integration, honor and acceptance into the mainstream society, but only up to a point. When trouble arises and the question of equity challenges, the mainstream society with friends in high places provides favors and special treatment. Other marginal cultures receive the blame, even if they have done nothing wrong and have behaved much more honorably and ethically than the mainstream financial institutions.

James relays many important truths in this documentary which is much more than its description as a David vs. Goliath story. It is a story of who we are as Americans in our dreams, our ideals, our ethics, our morality, our honor. Perhaps we must embrace community more. Surely, corporations have no love for their clients. And the government does not properly enforce penalties or justice. Indeed the bigger the corporation, the more well connected politically. James suggests this must change as he highlights how “the little guy” strives for justice with persistence and determination.

Moreover, James effects his themes with precise editing to maintain suspense. Right to the end, we cannot predict the outcomes. Saliently, James acquaints us with the community of Chinatown and opens our eyes to its amazing vibrancy, hope and energy. We realize these citizens contribute such greatness in their diversity, our country must continue to be welcoming. And the caution moves to the jaded, rapacious mainstream culture which must chide itself to remember. The greatness of our society lies in our immigrants. For unless we are Native Americans, we all are immigrant stock.

The documentary is a must-see. Check for it on Front-Line or purchase it on online streaming venues.

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