Abacus: Small Enough To Jail


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Despite his besst intentions, James never really fully achieves the cinematic element that would lift this above being a well-illustrated encyclopaedia article."

Steve James' Oscar-nominated documentary is an earnest, if rather dry, attempt to explore the prosecution of Abacus Federal Savings Bank following the 2008 economic crisis that, inevitably given its specificity, will hold most interest for US audiences.

The bank was the brainchild of Thomas Sung, a Shanghai born lawyer who moved to the US when he was 16 and, in 1984 decided to found Abacus as a way of helping the Chinatown community who he felt were being poorly served by other financial institutions.

Copy picture

Fast-forward to 2010 and the bank, now run by two of his daughters, Jill and Vera, discovered that one of their employees had been making money on the side by scamming extra payments from customers. When they reported this to the authorities, they found themselves with a one-way ticket to court, indicted, along with 19 staff, for a litany of crimes - to this date the only US institution to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the subprime scandal.

James follows the family, including additional children Heather and Chanterelle, in the run-up to and during the lengthy trial, using pastel sketches and voice-over to pick out key testimony in court. It was a complex case and one which hinged on whether or not bosses at the bank were aware of falsifications being made lower down the pecking order. Although firmly on the side of the Sungs, James, to his credit, makes an effort to represent the opposing argument, including interviews with the District Attorney.

The film is strongest at the human level. With intimate access to the Sungs' lives, James is able to show how they operate as a family unit. He also does a good job of illustrating the very specific financial issues faced by the emigre Chinese population and their children and why Thomas Sung came to have a position of trust within the community, although more voices from New York's Chinatown would have been welcome. The thinly veiled racism of the judicial system is also writ large, with scenes in which the accused were chained together for a court appearance particularly shocking.

Less successful, however, are the talking heads segments, where journalists such as The New Yorker's Jiayang Fan (who, along with other contributors including Matt Taibbi wrote extensively on the subject) basically reprise what they have written in between the courtroom back and forth.

Despite his best intentions, James never really fully achieves the cinematic element that would lift this above being a well-illustrated encyclopaedia article. It feels as though he has missed a trick, zooming in so much on the personal issue of the Sungs and their innocence or guilt, that he neglects the much larger elephant in the room - why it is that other banks received bailouts rather than court dates?

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2018
Share this with others on...
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail packshot
Chronicle of the legal battle between the Manhattan DA’s Office and Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, the only bank that was actually prosecuted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Director: Steve James

Starring: Neil Barofsky, Ti-Hua Chang, Jiayang Fan, Roman Fuzaylov, Polly Greenberg, Linda Hall, Don Lee, David Lindorff, Kevin Puvalowski, Chanterelle Sung, Heather Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Jill Sung, Thomas Sung, Vera Sung

Year: 2016

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US

Search database: