Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Documentary

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Documentary

Post by pianoman »

A PBS Frontline documentary film by Hoop Dreams director Steve James about a family-owned Chinese-American bank in New York recently aired on television. The film follows the bank's founder, Thomas Sung, and his daughters and wife as they defend themselves from charges that they falsified loan applications so that borrowers would qualify for loans from 2005 to 2010, i.e. roughly the period of the subprime mortgage crisis and Great Recession. Abacus Bank was the only bank in America to be brought up on criminal charges following the Recession. When the DA office announced the charges, a number of the bank's employees were led in front of the press chained together and several remarks were made linking the case to the subprime mortgage crisis, even though the case did not bear any relation to that activity. Abacus identified the fraud and brought it to the attention of regulators themselves, and their default rate was a tenth of the national average. They are also a small bank that could never have had the same effect on the economy as the big banks responsible for the 2008 crisis.

The film can be viewed for free here:


The film is relatively straightforward and is mostly interesting for the facts that it relates, not any kind of larger human issue. From an Asian-American perspective, however, the story really puts "model minority" status in perspective--both in relation to the "too big to fail" banks that actually received a $700 billion dollar federal bailout instead of criminal charges and to the US legal system that can whimsically target a small family-owned bank and force them to spend three and a half years defending themselves in court. I'm not so sure victory was achieved.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/movi ... ml?mcubz=3
Review: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ a Classic Underdog Tale
ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL Directed by Steve James

Documentary 1h 28m

The veteran documentary director Steve James is best known for “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” two expansive Chicago films that on the surface concerned basketball and violent crime but had much to say about the American dream and the potential for self-invention. His crowd-pleasing new documentary, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” doesn’t aspire to the same scale as those films, but like them, it’s a kind of stealth home movie: a portrait of two generations of an immigrant family in the United States.

Born in Shanghai, Thomas Sung founded the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown in 1984, hoping to make it easier for s Chinese immigrants to get loans. The bank became a community hub, but in 2012, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged it with mortgage fraud, also indicting 19 of its former employees.

Abacus was, a title card at the end asserts, “the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 crisis.” Was the government giving a pass to big fish and picking on a small one — perhaps with a tinge of racism in its motives? Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney who oversaw the case, called the accusations of cultural bias “entirely misplaced and entirely wrong.”

In a moment that seems unintentionally revealing, he adds, “I felt that our handling of the bank was consistent with how we would have handled the bank if we were investigating a bank that serviced a South American community or the Indian community.”

At least he agreed to be interviewed, which isn’t always the case in documentaries that fall so firmly on one side of a case. The movie makes no secret of its affection for the Sung family, which was well equipped professionally, if not financially, for an expensive legal battle. Of Mr. Sung’s four daughters, three were trained as lawyers — including Jill Sung, the bank’s chief executive, and Vera Sung, a director of the bank — and another had even worked in the district attorney’s office that prosecuted the case. The sisters have great charisma onscreen, although their mother, Hwei Lin Sung, earns the biggest smiles.

The film persuasively argues that any fraud at Abacus occurred at a low level, and that the bank dealt with it swiftly and properly. The prosecution was, in its view, an arrogant waste of resources and possibly an act of scapegoating. (The flip side of the banks that were too big to fail, the journalist Matt Taibbi says in the film, is this bank, which was “small enough to jail.”) The documentary also shows how Abacus had played an important role as a neighborhood banker in an immigrant community.

The filmmakers have asked that the trial’s verdict, announced in June 2015, be withheld from reviews to preserve suspense. An eye roll is the proper response, along with — in the online version of this review — a link to the New York Times article on the trial’s outcome, which Mr. Sung is shown reading in the film. His hero is James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and things worked out O.K. in that movie.

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