Mark Reviews Movies

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steve James

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 5/19/17 (limited); 6/16/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 15, 2017

Only one bank was prosecuted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It was a relatively small institution, ranked in the 2,000 range of the country's largest banks, and it had an almost 30-year tradition of catering to people of Chinese heritage in New York City.

Some of their customers couldn't speak English. The signs in the lobby are bilingual—in English and Chinese. The employees have a mixture of proficiency in both languages. Its formation, according to the bank's founder Thomas Sung, came about because of the community's lack of trust with other such institutions. In many cases, those banks were happy to take the money of Chinese immigrants and their descendants, but when they asked for loans, suddenly the banks didn't have any money to give.

There is, obviously, more than a whiff of racially-based prejudice in the story of how Abacus Federal Savings Bank came to be, and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James' documentary about the trial against the bank and 19 of its employees, suggests that such prejudice may have contributed to the prosecution of the bank. That's not to say that everyone indicted for mortgage fraud in this case was innocent. In fact, 10 of them pleaded guilty and, by all accounts, did commit fraud. The higher-ups, including two of Sung's daughters, were able to catch the abuse and fired at least two of them, leading to a string of resignations of other loan officers, too.

This is the least of what we wanted from the big banks after their shady loan practices led to the near-destruction of the world economy—accountability. We didn't get it. James briefly recounts the numbers of what did happen: Banks got slaps on the wrists in terms of fines, and they received a government bailout in an amount that far exceeded those fines. Instead of going after those institutions, in 2012, the New York County District Attorney's Office instead prosecuted Abacus, after a five-year grand jury investigation.

There were, obviously, clear-cut cases of fraud and other crimes, which made for good optics in the case. It appeared to be a show for the D.A. or, at least, one of his underlings, because what other reason could there be to have all of the defendants led through the halls of the court in chains for arraignment? Some of the people in the chain gang, we later learn, already had been arraigned, were out on bond, and were awaiting trial. The presence of more bodies equals a better photo opportunity, though.

James gives us both sides of the case, with interviews from people in the D.A.'s office, including Cyrus Vance Jr., the district attorney, who admits that the chain-gang thing looked bad but denies that he had any part in staging it. The director's sympathies, though, clearly lie with, if not the bank, the Sung family. The overwhelming majority of the film makes their case, from journalists who covered the trial to lawyers to the family members themselves. Theirs is a good a story, even before the legal stuff, so the focus only makes sense.

Sung came to the United States as a teenager, became a lawyer, and got into banking after seeing the gap of options for people within his community. He's approaching 80 at the time of filming, and he's still as passionate as a young man about people, the bank, and, as it turns out when the trial begins, the law. This is a constant source of frustration for his wife Hwei Lin, who scolds her husband over the phone that he needs to eat something and come home. "You're an old man," she yells—and not as a reminder, since Sung doesn't seem to realize that fact.

The family has given James seemingly unfettered access to their professional and personal lives, which have started to bleed together on account of the trial, as well as their discussions of legal matters. Three of Sung's four daughters, like their father, became lawyers, and two of them stopped practicing law to become executives at Abacus. The conversations in meeting rooms between them, as they debate strategy, are the highlights of the film. One of the daughters, the youngest, worked for the D.A.'s office until indictments against her family's business came down. She doesn't just see those actions as an affront to her family. She, like so many others in the area, sees them as a thinly veiled condemnation of the entire Chinese community in New York.

Things become tricky as James attempts to illuminate the customs of this community. The goal, it seems, is to suggest that what seems like everyday practice here—doing business in cash, giving monetary gifts to family members that legally could be considered loans, using family ties for jobs—is a gray area in the eyes of the law. The prosecution's case is that the bank, by either enabling or ignoring the illegal actions of those loan officers, defrauded the Federal National Mortgage Association—what most of us know as "Fannie Mae". The Sungs and their attorney argue that the bank's loans did better in making money for Fannie Mae than most of the big banks. How can it be considered a victim?

This gets tricky because James seems to be making the D.A.'s case in an indirect way, even though he clearly doesn't want to. Surprisingly, though, it doesn't matter much in the big picture of the film. The point of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail isn't to make a case for the prosecution or the defense. It's to use a complex legal proceeding as a way to examine this family and this community, and James does so with his usual, personal touch.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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