“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” – 2017 DOC NYC Film Review

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” the title of the latest documentary by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters,” “Life Itself”), is derived from commentator Matt Taibbi’s wry inversion of the familiar phrase “too big to fail.” This was the common explanation and justification for the U.S. government’s bailing out big banks such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, because letting them go under would supposedly do irreparable damage to both domestic and global financial systems.

As far as the consequences for banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it is generally believed that none of these institutions was subject to criminal prosecution, despite the fact that rampant illegal and fraudulent practices precipitated the financial crisis. But as James’ compelling film shows us, this is not exactly true. There was one bank – and to date, one bank only – that was indicted after the 2008 crisis.

This was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small community bank based in New York’s Chinatown, founded by Shanghai-born lawyer Thomas Sung in 1984 as an alternative to other banks in the city that would take deposits from Chinese residents, but would refuse them loans to start businesses or buy homes. We first meet Sung in the film watching Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” together with his wife Hwei Lin. Sung very much identifies with that film’s protagonist George Bailey, as he too believed his bank’s primary mission was serving and helping to financially empower his community.

In 2010, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced the indictments of 19 former Abacus employees, as well as the bank itself, for engaging in (in his words) “large scale mortgage fraud.” Thomas Sung, as well as his two daughters Jill and Vera, who served as Abacus’ president and bank director respectively, were blindsided by these indictments, especially since Jill and Vera had themselves discovered the fraud committed by these low-level employees, and immediately fired the individuals involved. They also reported everything to the federal authorities, even going so far as to turn over large binders of relevant documents to regulators.

However, Abacus’ cooperation with the authorities mattered little to Vance, who was determined to make an example out of Abacus as a way of showing that the government would get tough with those banks who were responsible for the global financial crisis. This despite the fact that Abacus actually had one of the lowest mortgage default rates in the country.

The film suggests that there were performative aspects, as well as a rather cynical political calculus, at work in the decision of the DA’s office to go so hard against Abacus. As a small bank, Abacus was perceived to be a much easier target than, say, Bank of America. It was expected that Abacus would simply fold, take a plea, and pay a fine, rather than go through a time-consuming, expensive trial. It would seem that Vance also figured that there would be few political consequences to this action that would certainly anger the Chinese community, since his re-election wouldn’t be decided by their votes.

Vance’s office also made a big show of parading the Abacus employees who’d been arrested for fraud in front of news cameras, chained together like jailbirds from a 1930’s Hollywood movie. This display shocked many, including Thomas Sung’s daughter Chanterelle, who was an assistant DA in Vance’s office at the time; outraged by this, she eventually quit. Chanterelle and others who worked there say in the film that they’d never seen anything like that in all the time they worked there; almost certainly, no white people similarly indicted would have been treated that way.

However, Vance seriously underestimated the Sung family’s resolve and determination to prove their innocence. The Sungs decided to take their case to trial and fight it out. Thomas and his three daughters all had law degrees, and thus were able to marshal this expertise to defend themselves in court. Much more than simply the fate of the bank was at stake; the very reputation of the Chinese American community was being questioned and judged through the Abacus trial. This trial ended up costing the Sung family $10 million and five years of their lives.

“Abacus” follows the Sung family closely through the last few months of the trial, as they await the decision of the jury. What emerges is a vibrant portrait of a strong and loving, if sometimes combative, family. This story will be new for many, since outside of the initial media spectacle and the verdict, it got virtually no coverage outside the Chinese-language press. James and his crew tells this story in a lively, compelling way, deftly navigating the disadvantage of not being allowed to film in the courtroom (drawings and transcript readings fill in the gaps). The vital importance of the Abacus bank to the community it serves is also strongly rendered; without Abacus, many in the community would have been unable to start businesses or buy their own homes. Abacus may have been a small bank, but the fine film Steve James has made about it powerfully makes much larger points about economic and social justice in America.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” has screened at many festivals around the world, including the New York Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase. It had a theatrical run in North America earlier this year, and recently had its television broadcast premiere as part of the PBS series “Frontline.” “Abacus” also screens at this year’s DOC NYC festival. For more information, visit DOC NYC’s website