Full Frame Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail


A few years ago, Steve James was honored by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for his cinematic career. What stuck out most wasn’t James standing on the stage holding an award, but during the festival seeing James with many of the people whose lives were documented in his films. They weren’t just characters in his films such as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, but extended family. So it makes sense that when James turns his focus on the financial loan crisis of 2008, the subject is more than a bank and money, but a family. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail covers the trial of the only bank that was taken to court by the New York district attorney.

If you remember 2008, that was the year when the mortgage industry exploded because banks and other loan companies had been playing fast and loose with handing them out. Why? Because they all wanted to make fast money even faster. Underlings were told they had to make loan quotas or they’d lose their jobs. Many of these operations didn’t care if the loans were toxic and built to fail because like a game of hot potato, they were going to sell these loans to other institutions that thought they were getting reliable investments. Major players in the loan industry made a killing during this heyday. But this scheme turned out to be not a hot potato, but a time bomb that exploded and took major players out of the game. Remember Wachovia bank or Bear Stearns? They were destroyed when this money game was completely exposed. But a funny thing happened, the jails did not overflow with all these people who basically were robbing banks while sitting inside their bank offices. Even the heads of Countrywide Financial were able to pay minor fines and get to retire to the sweet life with all the rest of their money. But somebody had to be the face of this disaster and somehow that face belonged to Thomas Sung.

Back in the early 1980s, Sung was a successful lawyer in New York City that worked mainly with the Chinese immigrant community. He recognized a problem in the area with Chinese-American citizens not being able to fully use their banks. They could deposit money easily enough, but the major banks weren’t too hot to loan them money for homes and businesses. So he created Abacus, a bank geared towards those who spoke Chinese. The film compares him to George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. He makes the new venture a family affair as he talks two of his four daughters into the venture. Sung’s wife wasn’t too enthusiastic at having her family getting into banking. She had all four of her daughters become lawyers. For the most part things went well for them. They served the community and had a few branches. They weren’t out to grow wildly and conquer the world. While other banks were breaking with the 2008 collapse, Abacus seemed fine. But then they discovered one of their longtime employees was doing illegal things when processing loans such as off the record cash payments from customers. The Sungs thought they were doing the right thing when they investigated, fired the guy and reported it to the proper authorities. But quickly they discovered they were not assisting the New York District Attorney’s office, but being targeted. They found themselves facing dozens of felony charges and unlike their neighboring huge financial institutions, there would be no pay a fine out. They chained together a dozen or so employees and marched them past the news media to indict them. They wanted the Sungs to plea to felonies.

What the D.A.’s office didn’t count on was that Sung, his four daughters and even his reluctant wife are willing to fight back for their family honor and the bank. James talks to many of the major players including District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. He becomes the villain as he presents his beliefs in the film. Of all the soulless, greedy, money worshiping evil money men in Manhattan, why did he have to pick on the Sungs? Since there were no cameras in the courtroom, the testimony is related through reading the transcript and looking at court drawings. James’ camera is reserved the action and reaction after each day inside the courthouse. At some points you’re not sure if this could be a giant snow job from the Sung family. But thankfully the Sung’s have the financial data to prove that their loan department wasn’t even close to Countrywide’s scam center. Abacus had the loan record that all banks should wish they could achieve. But they still have to leave their fate up to the jury. Judging from recent outcomes, the Sungs’ fate is in jeopardy the entire film.

James constructs the movie so it balances the family, the trial and bank issues. This is not as dry as reading your bank statement. There’s plenty of room to laugh especially as the Sungs sit around the table with a family of five lawyers trying to make a point while the mother just wants a bit of sanity. Cinematographer Tom Bergmann (A Life Animated) livens up shots that could have just been flat news footage. The movie is slated to play theaters later this summer and eventually end up on the PBS documentary series Frontline. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a 21st Century It’s A Wonderful Life except Sung needs quite a few smart lawyers and his family instead of a clumsy angel for a chance at survival.

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