“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Film” Up for Consideration

(Gerry Furth-Sides) As soon as I read that Steve James filmed The Academy Award® nominated film ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, it was enough to watch it.  It is a perfect way to start the Chinese Year of the Dog 2018 even though the Frontline TV Documentary was aired in 2017.

Attorneys Jill and Vera Sung with their father, Thomas Sung in the bank’s (8000) deposit box room at Abacus bank.

The New York Times calls ABACUS – ” A classic underdog tale.”  RogerEbert.com states that it is “An underdog story not unlike the one in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.”

ABACUS chronicles the Chinese-American Sung family’s fight to clear their names after their small bank in New York City’s Chinatown became the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud after the 2008 financial crisis. The documentary follows how the bank’s indictment and subsequent trial forced the Sung family to defend themselves — and their bank’s legacy in the Chinatown community — over the course of a five-year legal battle.

Director Steve James

The strong Sung family daughters are as vibrant and strong as any fictional Any Tan characters – we’d love to see this story as a commercial film.   The two daughters, Jill and Vera, are attorneys working with their father as bank officers at the bank when they are forced to defend it against a bullying Manhattan District Attorney.  The last 15 minutes are nail biters if you don’t already know the outcome.

ABACUS was nominated for “Best Documentary” by both the National Board of Review and by The Chicago Film Critics Association, and awarded “Best Political Documentary” by the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Filmmaker James was also nominated as Best Director by the DGA for his work on the film.

This James’ his first Oscar® nomination in category of Best Documentary Feature as director.  (I was one of the many who felt his legendary documentary, HOOP DREAMS, was overlooked for an Oscar® in 1995.)  Julie Goldman and Mark Mitten are his co-Oscar® nominees.

ABACUS is available now streaming on Amazon and on https://www.pbs.org/frontline  The film is also back in theaters starting this week in New York at the Museum of Moving Image and in Los Angeles, exclusively at the Laemmle Music Hall Beverly Hills.  The Metrograph in New York is also hosting a Steve James retrospective on February 22.  Check local listings for exact showtimes.

 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tells the incredible saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York. Accused of mortgage fraud by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Abacus becomes the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The indictment and subsequent trial forces the Sung family to defend themselves – and their bank’s legacy in the Chinatown community – over the course of a five-year legal battle.

New York City’s Chinatown “elder statesman,” attorney and real estate developer, Thomas Sung and his family are perfect as the subjects to show how the Chinese are still treated as a minority and how small businesses can be targets of the government.  The family is well-spoken, great company and attractive.  And altruistic.  Sung himself decided to open the small community bank, Abacus Federal Savings Bank,  in the heart of Chinatown after he had trouble securing a mortgage. He realized wasn’t alone. “Banks at that time wanted Chinese depositors,” says Sung, “but not borrowers.”

Since Sung first opened Abacus in 1984, it has come to be seen as a cornerstone of the Chinatown community, helping many residents buy homes and start businesses.

Abacus was able to weather the 2008 economic implosion that nearly wrecked the world economy — through a situation very much like the one in a favored film of his about a bank, with hero Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Good Life.”

Institutions with vast holdings like JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and HBSC, all participated in massive mortgage fraud that they plotted and maintained until the whole scheme fell apart in catastrophic fashion. And yet not a single one of these banks has ever been criminally indicted. In fact, the American taxpayers bailed out these banks because they were deemed “too-big-to-fail.”

In 2010, the New York County District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., announced the indictments of nineteen former Abacus employees and the bank itself with much fanfare, saying that the institution engaged in “large scale mortgage fraud” that included hundreds of millions in loans. Vance’s office paraded ten current and former Abacus employees before the media, chained together as if they were dangerous criminals. Chanterelle Sung, Thomas’s daughter, worked as an Assistant DA in Vance’s office at the time and recalls that she’d never seen such a display in her seven years there.

Thomas Sung was bewildered by the indictments because Abacus, unlike the big banks, had discovered the internal low-level fraud themselves, then took corrective action and notified Federal authorities. And Abacus had one of the lowest mortgage default rates in the country – less the 1/20th the national average. Yet they were headed to trial as the first domestic bank charged with fraud in New York since 1991.

No one disputes that laws were broken at Abacus. There were several loan officers at the bank who were altering mortgage applications to fraudulently qualify Chinese borrowers.  These potential borrowers work in a cash economy and don’t routinely have full documentation for large purchases such as a house. Once Thomas Sung’s daughters, Jill (Abacus’ President) and Vera (Bank Director), discovered the fraud, they quickly fired the loan officer involved and reported the incident  to the federal authorities, all in keeping with federal regulations.

Ironically, the Sungs initially welcomed the involvement of the New York City District Attorney Office, expecting they would root out any others within the bank’s loan department who might have committed fraud. Instead, District Attorney Vance targeted the bank.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail follows the Sung family through the difficult last months of the trial and the nerve-wracking wait for the jury’s decision.  estimated $10 million to defend themselves and their bank over the course of the five-year ordeal.

 With remarkable access to all the players in this complex story, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail creates an intimate portrait of the Sungs’ private and public struggles as they make their way through a difficult trial and its aftermath.  The several scenes of them eating in a restaurant are telling and engaging, and would have to be in a film about the Chinese.
The film offers insights from Cyrus Vance Jr. and his team, including Polly Greenberg, Director of the Economic Crimes Unit; Jiayang Fan, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine who covered the entire trial; Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone reporter and author of “The Divide”, who speaks authoritatively about what he sees is the unequal application of justice in America; and from two jurors on the case who explain the inner workings that led the jury to their verdict.

According to Director Steve James, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail asks fundamental questions about what the purpose of a bank should be in a community – especially an immigrant community – and whether the prosecution of  this small financial institution has much larger implications for the role of banks in our society.

 “Abacus guilt or culpability during this fraud case, it’s indisputable that they are in many ways the mirror-opposite of the Big Banks. Abacus is the 2651st largest bank in the U.S. Their assets are 1/100th of one percent of Bank of America. They did initially report the fraud they discovered and then initiated their own internal investigation that resulted in firing of other loan officers.

“Making this film was eye-opening for me in so many ways. I’d never spent any meaningful time in the Chinese-American community, let alone, Chinatown. It can be such a closed community to outsiders. The Sungs stature in the community made access possible. And spending time with the Sung family was priceless.

“Despite our affection for the family, and the fact that we tell this story through their eyes, we felt a great responsibility to feature the perspective of the District Attorney of New York, Cyrus Vance, Jr., and his prosecution team, along with insights from jurors who struggled mightily to reach a verdict. Their participation added immeasurably to our understanding of the case against Abacus.”