‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

This Toronto premiere from ‘Hoop Dreams’ director Steve James chronicles the case against the only U.S. bank prosecuted for mortgage fraud after the 2008 crash.

Finally! A film that stands up for those poor bankers. Well, kind of. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is the latest socially conscious documentary from director Steve James, who made his name with the Oscar-nominated basketball saga Hoop Dreams in 1994. The background context this time is another American minority group, New York City’s Chinese community, though the focus is more low-key and domestic than some of the filmmaker’s previous campaigning underclass stories.
The film’s title is a sardonic twist on the “too big to fail” Wall Street giants, who escaped the market meltdown of 2008 unscathed with multi-billion-dollar tax bailouts. Meanwhile, the small family-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank became the only U.S. bank to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud. Launched at TIFF this week, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a modestly gripping real-life legal thriller with an appealing Chinese-American twist. Further festival bookings should follow, but the small screen is its natural home. A TV premiere on the PBS Frontline documentary slot is scheduled for 2017.
Based in New York’s Chinatown, Abacus was founded in 1984 by Shanghai-born Thomas Sung and his partners. A lawyer by training, Sung became a pillar of the local community, arranging mortgages and loans for the bank’s heavily Chinese clientele. Now 80, he remains a neat and dapper figurehead at the bank, working alongside three of his four grown-up daughters. James is keen to draw parallels between Sung and James Stewart’s small-town banker hero in It’s a Wonderful Life, although Abacus is not quite that kind of folksy family business, with six branches in three states.
In 2010, the managers at Abacus alerted the authorities after spotting irregularities on their mortgage books. Most of the glitches were traced to a single employee, Ken Yu, who was taking bribes and falsely inflating customer income claims. In 2012, the New York District Attorney’s Office responded by indicted the bank and 19 employees, branding Abacus “a criminal conspiracy fueled by greed.” Sung and his daughters were suddenly plunged into a nightmarish court battle that consumed five years and $10 million. With bitter irony, Yu himself was the prosecution’s star witness.
Embedded with the Sung family as the trial unfolds, James works hard to bring out the story’s specifically Chinese-American texture. There are illuminating insights into Chinatown with its local economy of cash-only deals and informal private loans. Cultural angst about “losing face” comes into play when Abacus employees are arrested, handcuffed and paraded in chains, a humiliating and heavy-handed stunt.
Televisual in scale and in feel, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail does not have quite the stirring dramatic impact that James may have initially intended. Audiences will naturally empathize with the underdogs in this David-vs-Goliath story, so there is little sense of moral ambiguity or burning injustice to keep us hooked. Whether bickering over dim sum or choking back tears over their latest legal setback, the Sung dynasty are pretty hard to dislike, sharing a classic second-generation immigrant credo of hard work and strong family values. The director’s personal sympathies are certainly never in doubt.
To his credit, James interviews witnesses for both defense and prosecution, including New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. He also talks to financial experts who question why Abacus is effectively being scapegoated for the banking equivalent of jaywalking. Some accuse the DA’s office of racial bias, but the evidence does not really stand up. It appears more likely that the Sung family were singled out because they were an easy target rather than for their ethnic origins. A minor but touchingly human subplot to the financial crash, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is both an affirmation and an indictment of the American Dream.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production companies: Mitten Media, Motto Pictures, Kartemquin Films, Frontline, ITVS, Blue Ice Docs
Director: Steve James
Producers: Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Executive producers: Gordon Quinn, Christopher Clements, Betsy Steinberg, Justine Nagan, Raney Aronson, Sally Jo Fifer
Cinematography: Tom Bergmann
Editors: John Farbrother, David E. Simpson
Music: Joshua Abrams
Sales: Cinetic Media

Not rated, 90 minutes