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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 19, 2017
'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'
'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'  

The opening scenes of Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Steve James's intriguing new film shows an affluent elderly Chinese/American couple watching James Stewart playing the heroic banker George Bailey in the classic movie "It's A Wonderful Life." This evidently is the Sung's favorite film, and it's what successful lawyer Thomas Sung claimed inspired him when, in 1984, he opened the first-ever Chinese-owned Bank in N.Y's Chinatown, as he wanted to be exactly like Bailey and give something back to the local community.

His Abacus Federal Savings Bank was an immediate success, giving seed money to local businesses and providing mortgages for people anxious to buy their first home. As it grew, three of the Sung's adult daughters became officers of the bank and took over the day-to-day management when their father semi-retired. Then, in 2010, the Sungs spotted irregularities in the loans department, which were traced to one rogue employee whom they fired for taking bribes. They then advised the Securities Commission of their actions.

Instead of being applauded for acting so transparently and keeping to the letter of the law, the Manhattan D.A.'s Office indicted the bank and 19 of its employees, accusing the bank -- i.e., the Sungs -- of conspiracy. The irony here, of course, is that all the major banks and financial institutions that had created the dire 2008 economic crisis through widespread corrupt practices had not only escaped prosecution and sanctions, but they had been bailed out with taxpayer money. They were, as everyone claimed at the time, "Too Big to Fail." Hence, the title of this movie: The authorities seemed happy enough to pick on Abacus simply because it was literally was "small enough to jail."

Even though the bank had a low mortgage defaults rate (barely one tenth of the nation average), they were accused of falsifying loan applications so that borrowers would qualify for mortgages. The D.A. charged then with fraud in relation to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of mortgages that had been sold to Fannie Mae between 2005 and 2010.

It took the bank the next three very long years, plus $10 million and a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, to defend themselves in court. Despite all this, they never once wavered from their determination to fight back every inch of the way, even if it felt like David vs Goliath. In the end the bank was acquitted of all charges, essentially after the evidence of their rogue ex-employee (who had got himself an immunity deal) was completely disproved in court.

The Sungs are a very close-knit family, very stoic and determined not to reveal too much of themselves to cameras even when the going is getting very rough. Thomas is revered not just by his daughters, but by the whole Chinatown community, who took the legal assault on the bank personally. It is hard not to think of the indictments as racist, especially as the Wall Street giants that escaped any repercussions are all run by rich old white guys.

James wants us to feel outrage at Abacus's singular treatment, particularly because Cyrus Vance -- the high profile D.A. who made the Bank such a public scapegoat -- still refuses, in the doc, to acknowledge that his office was wrong to put the Sungs through such hell. If he had any other reason for pursuing this prosecution, Vance certainly wasn't going to share it in the interview he gave to James.

This very compelling movie will certainly not shed any light for those of us who are still struggling to find out what really happened in the Wall Street crash, but it does yet once again demonstrate the inequalities handed out by the authorities and/or politicians. There really is one set of rules for big business, and another for everybody else.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Abacus, a small family-run bank, becomes the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The indictment and subsequent trial forces the Sung family to defend itself -- and its bank's legacy in the Chinatown community -- over the course of a five-year legal battle.


Runtime :: 90 mins
Release Date :: May 19, 2017
Language :: Silent
Country :: United States


Director :: Steve James
Executive Producer :: Raney Aronson
Executive Producer :: Christopher Clements
Executive Producer :: Sally Fifer
Executive Producer :: Justine Nagan
Executive Producer :: Gordon Quinn
Executive Producer :: Betsy Steinberg
Producer :: Julie Goldman
Producer :: Mark Mitten
Original Music :: Joshua Abrams
Cinematographer :: Tom Bergmann

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.


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