Abacus: Small Enough to Jail




A compelling tale of how one Chinese American family was affected by the bank mortgage crisis of 



Abacas Small Enough to Jail


The documentarian Steve James is best known for his epic-length classic Hoop Dreams made in 1994.  In contrast to that film, his latest work is small-scale, but that is entirely appropriate for a piece that is essentially intimate in character. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, located in New York's Chinatown, was founded by an immigrant who had been born in Shanghai in 1935 but had then made a successful life for himself in America where he had studied to become a lawyer. This man, Thomas Sung, went into banking late in life, this being a gesture offered in return for what America and its Chinese community had done for him. The bank was a family concern with his daughter Jill becoming president and another daughter (he had four altogether) being one of its directors and it was conceived from the start as a bank set up by the Chinese for the Chinese.


The film is a portrait of the Sung family and of the New York Chinese community but in dramatic terms its central focus is on what happened to Abacus consequent on the banking crisis of 2008 and the scandal that then emerged over mortgage loans made by so many American banks ill-advisedly and even fraudulently. However, Abacus would become the only bank to be charged in this respect with accusations not just against corrupt individuals employed but against the bank itself, Thomas Sung and others. The clear implication was that the whole set-up was an untrustworthy institution intent on profiteering at the expense of its customers. In the circumstances Sung was determined to deny the charges outright and thus began a court hearing lasting over two months with District Attorney Cyrus Vance determined to make an example of this one bank which had a much better record than most. Ironically, one of the prosecution's key witnesses was a former employee who, having been found to be involved in fraud, had been fired by the bank.


In making this film Steve James did not have access to the courtroom so he uses reenactments of what was said there accompanied by drawings to convey the scene. By following a chronological course, the film builds towards the tensions of the trial while involving us fully with the Sung family. All of them come across as decent people put under strain unjustly. They were being treated as a kind of whipping boy since other banks clearly far more deserving of being indicted were not. The fact that the case is not well known will mean that many viewers will be unaware of the outcome of the hearing. Consequently, this deeply sympathetic documentary will build to a suspenseful conclusion as the jury take days to come to a conclusion (interestingly some jurors contribute to the film as interviewees thus revealing their thoughts). The situation is one that prompts thoughts of that famous fictional film 12 Angry Men, but this time it is all for real. Audiences warming to the Sung family in their ordeal will equally warm to the film itself. It's very well judged and an absorbing watch.       




Featuring  Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Chanterelle Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Heather Sung, David Lindorf, Don Lee, Cyrus Vance, Polly Greenberg. 


Dir Steve James, Pro Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman, Nick Verbitsky and Fenell Doremus, Ph Tom Bergmann, Ed John Farbrother and David E. Simpson, Music Joshua Abrams.


Blue Ice Films/Kastemquin Films/Mitten Media/Motto Pictures-DocHouse.
88 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 7 July 2017. No Cert.