VOD film review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
James R | On 04, Mar 2018
Director: Steve James
Cast: Thomas Sung, Jill Sung, Vera Sung
Watch Abacus: Small Enough to Jail online in the UK: Amazon Instant Video
In 2008, the US credit crunch hit hard, taking down homes and lives, as the American government raced to bail out the banks that helped cause the mess to begin with. If you thought that no banks were charged for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis, though, you haven’t heard about Abacus Federal Savings Bank. A tiny, family-owned bank in Manhattan, it became the only lender to face criminal charges in the wake of the crisis; if the others were too big to fail, Abacus was the unlucky firm that turned out to be small enough to jail.
That cruel double-standard isn’t lost on director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), who has an eye for tales of identity, society and the American Dream. And so he charts the tale of the little bank that could, founded by the Sung family back in 1984. Thomas Sung was the head of the bank, a man who was not a banker by trade: he was a lawyer, born in Shanghai. But that profession wasn’t enough for him, as he found himself wanting to give back to the community. And so he set up a financial institution that was as much a cultural and communal hub as it was a lender, a small savings-and-loan provider that helped fund businesses and support mortgages.
All that came crumbling down, though, when one employee – Ken Yu – was found to be accepting bribes. James is precise in his chronicle of the events, as the paperwork trail is unveiled through the bank’s books. But Sung appears as shocked as anyone, and the question becomes not whether wrongdoing took place, but whether he and the others in charge knew anything about it.
James’ stance is clear from the outset, and it’s hard not to be won over by the personal stakes of the professional scandal; as a family business, we meet all the Sungs, including, fortunately, several daughters who trained to be lawyers, putting the group in a strong place to fight back, even when the cost of the five-year legal battle stacks up high. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. dismisses the idea that there was racism at play, but pursues his suspects with a drive that even leads to one shocking stunt: walking the Sungs into court like a chain gang, cuffed together in a way that would never have done to a while family business. The Lehman Brothers, meanwhile, are bailed out.
Was Abacus simply made a scapegoat or was there merit to the charges? Abacus doesn’t always balance its argument as much as you’d hope: in an age of investigative true crime and campaigning filmmaking, you want more of an in-depth expose of the other side of the fence. But if James’ film has narrower access than one might expect, it succeeds by earning the trust of the now-80-year-old Thomas, and capturing the tragic irony of the whole situation. We first meet him and his wife as they watch It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that inspired him to start Abacus in the first place. James Stewart’s George Bailey was his role model – and while we won’t reveal here the outcome of the trial that Abacus faced, Small Enough to Jail is a fantastic portrait of a Chinatown community and the bank at its heart, an important reminder of the vital role immigrants play in building the American Dream, and compelling, eye-opening proof that outside of the movies, modern US society is often far from wonderful.