Film Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Steve James’ documentary about the family-run Chinatown bank that was the only financial institution brought to trial after the subprime mortgage crash is a stunning David-and-Goliath epic.
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For his first feature-length documentary since 2014’s soulful and celebratory Roger Ebert biopic Life Itself, Steve James takes on one of the great unknown stories of the housing market crash. Following the detonation in 2007 and 2008 of the toxic subprime mortgages that had been inflating the profits of financial institutions and the subsequent government bailout, there was a hue and cry for at least some heads of those firms to face criminal charges. The argument was that the executives were at best negligent and at worst criminally responsible for wide-scale fraud. No matter how loud those calls were, though, ultimately no financial-industry institution was ever put on trial for anything relating to the greatest market collapse since the Great Depression. Except, that is, for the family-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown.

The subtitle of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, delivered early on by investigative journalist Matt Taibbi, neatly encapsulates the thesis of this quietly enraged and highly personal film. The irony was that not only had Abacus already identified the fraud, fired the responsible employees and alerted the authorities to what happened, their mortgage default rates were many times below the national average. Also, as the film caustically notes, Abacus was the 2,651st largest financial institution in America—not precisely a systemic risk.

Established by Shanghai-born Thomas Sung, Abacus catered specifically to the immigrant-run small businesses of Chinatown which operate mostly in cash and, prior to Abacus, had a difficult time getting loans in the traditional manner. Thomas did his business quietly for many years, establishing himself as a pillar in the community. That all changed in 2010, when District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. indicted Abacus and 19 former employees for mortgage fraud. Instead of pleading guilty as the D.A.’s office likely expected, Thomas took the case to trial.

For the subsequent ordeal, which took five years and would cost him some $10 million, Thomas was joined by his fiercely protective daughters. Two of them, Jill Sung and Vera Sung, worked with Thomas as officers at Abacus, while Chanterelle was actually an assistant district attorney in Vance’s office; she quit after the charges were filed. A lawyer by training, Thomas has a patient and modest demeanor that one can imagine proving particularly helpful in times of crisis. He is such an optimist that it’s not surprising to find out, as revealed in James’ touching framing device, that he models himself after George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. “I wish this could end the same way,” he says.

Unlike Sung, his daughters weren’t immigrants. They were raised in Connecticut and given American-sounding first names. One can see their level of defiance ringing through nearly every scene as they confront the possibility that the government believed it had found an easy prize in this small immigrant bank. James builds on their sense of outrage as the trial progresses, giving the film a grander scale than one might imagine possible for such a story. The warm but spiky familial tensions that arise as the trial grinds on, with the hard-nosed Jill and Vera pushing Thomas to be more combative, and the more emotive Chanterelle trying to make sense of this injustice, create a powerful emotional core for a potentially abstract story. There are times when the narrative is so close to the admittedly highly charming and resolute family, in fact, that it almost obscures the larger picture.

At first glance, the courtroom maneuverings and abstruse financial regulations make Abacus seem like foreign territory for James, who tends not to stray too far from his Chicago turf, and maybe more suited for a hot-button investigative filmmaker like Alex Gibney. But James quickly proves his abilities to deliver the story in a commanding, dramatic fashion. He hews closely to the sentiment behind Taibbi’s line “Too big to fail turns into small enough to jail” throughout. This will stir strong emotions for any viewer who not only hates to see the little guy get pushed around, but suspects that the no-guilt-admitted fines later paid by the architects of the 2008 crash weren’t so much a punishment as they were a getaway vehicle.

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