Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
(USA, 84 min.)
Dir. Steve James
Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) finds the ultimate David and Goliath tale of the 2008 financial crisis in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The film examines the bizarre case of the only bank to be charged for mortgage fraud following the crisis and housing market crash. The culprits—or, perhaps more appropriately, “targets”—of this case are the employees of Abacus Federal Savings, a small and independently owned bank in New York’s Chinatown. The riveting human drama that James finds in the tale of the Sung family and their fight to clear their reputation and that of their community is a compelling portrait of resilience, conviction, and the fight to preserve the American Dream.
In Abacus, Thomas Sung explains to James how he arrived in America as an immigrant in his teens and eventually founded the bank to meet the needs of the growing population of Chinese immigrants who required a unique financial institution that reflected their culture, language, and community. Sung adds that his experience with having difficulty acquiring a loan from established banks revealed to him that American financial institutions were happy to take his money, but were reluctant to lend him the dough that would let his family prosper. Abacus is all about giving new Americans the chance to fulfill the American dream they left home to attain.
Abacus lets Sung and his family give their side of the case in their own words. Sung appears in some gripping and emotional interviews with his wife, Hwei Lin, their daughters Jill and Vera, who continue the family legacy as President and Director of Abacus, respectively, and daughter Chanterelle, a feisty lawyer who leaves the district attorney’s office when she learns of the dubious investigation. (A fourth daughter, Heather, appears via conference calls on speakerphone.) The Sungs highlight the importance of the bank within the community, and they reveal, in an engagingly dramatic bit of storytelling, what happened when Jill discovered an employee had committed serious fraud by passing forged mortgage applications through to Abacus’ management while collecting payments from clients. Jill explains how she took action by firing him and bringing the matter to the appropriate bodies who oversee the bank’s activities. The Sungs don’t exactly sound like calculating conspirators committing large-scale fraud against the community when they outline their careful due diligence once the fraud was discovered.
The family unpacks the absurdity of the charges against Abacus with exacting precision. As James presents the evidence to the audience, Abacus makes a clear case that the charges against the bank are grossly disproportionate to what actually took place. The film debunks the comical grocery list of counts that prosecutor Charles Vance, Jr. (Chanterelle’s former boss) brought against Abacus and 19 of its former employees, but James is smart enough to make this tale more than a one-sided tragedy. James gets a laudable degree of access to the prosecution as well as the Sungs. The master filmmaker gives ample time to Vance and Polly Greenberg, the Chief of the New York County DA’s office Major Economic Crimes Bureau, who explain why Abacus, of all the banks in America, was the right one to prosecute. But they’re far less convincing than the Sungs.
Abacus asks how anyone can pursue the American dream when the scales are rigged against citizens who use their good fortune to aid their neighbours, rather than expand the gap between the rich and the poor. The film shows the greater systemic injustice that put the Sungs on trial, as it challenges the charges against Abacus. When a bank as small as Abacus makes some serious mistakes, it’s only a minor percentage of the trillions of dollars in theft committed by the major banks, who received bailouts as rewards for their crimes. James portrays America as a land of rigged scales and unequal opportunities.
The film also charges America with failing to build systems that account for the experiences of immigrants, new citizens and diverse communities. However, Abacus shows that the greatness of a country isn’t defined by the systems that govern it, but rather by the people who strive to make the nation the best that it can be. The film likens Thomas Sung to a modern day George Bailey as scenes from Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life appear throughout Abacus. Jimmy Stewart’s earnest banker complements the Sung’s philosophy of being good to their neighbours.
Abacus turns this George Bailey mindset back on American ideology as it considers its community: Chinatown, where cash-driven businesses are key and families don’t necessarily thrive on the same values of capitalism and materialism that citizens prioritise elsewhere in America. The film shows the necessity of having institutions that reflect the needs and values of new Americans and immigrants. The vigour of It’s a Wonderful Life resonates strongly in James’s gripping and unexpectedly emotional film as Abacus takes a stand for the little guys. One hopes that America eventually finds the same happy ending.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens Friday, June 2 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.