Abacus: Small Enough to Jail


Thomas Sung, the subject of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Photo by Sean Lyness

October 01, 2016. “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a gripping account of the, under reported, trial of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only bank to have faced criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. Even though much bigger banks participated in deliberate and massive mortgage fraud, no criminal indictments were every brought against them. They were bailed out by the tax payers because they were “too big to fail.” In other words, had they failed they would have wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. So, they got a pass. Abacus, as the film’s title suggests, was small enough to pick on as the proxy for the much bigger banking corruption that was not, and apparently could not be, punished.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank was a relatively small community bank, located in New York City’s Chinatown. The bank was started by Thomas Sung as a way to offer loans and mortgages to Chinese immigrants.  The bigger banks would gladly take deposits from immigrants, but would not give them loans.

Sung is presented as a modern day George Bailey (from the 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” ) committed to helping his community. Due to some corrupt Abacus loan officers, who the bank caught, fired and turned in to the authorities, Sung’s business and reputation were put on the line. However, the prosecution did not count on Sung’s three tenacious daughters.

Director Steve James, producer Mark Mitten, cinematographer Tom Bergman, editors John Farbrother and David E. Simpson have fashioned an incredible story which did not receive much media attention while it was happening, but which is getting its due now.  A challenge faced by the filmmakers was that their cameras were not allowed in the court room during the trial.  As a result, they have come up with clever, interesting and creative juxtapositions of visual and aural elements which bring the trial to life and, I think, are just as effective, and maybe even more effective, than showing the trial itself.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is an iconic story. It is a story that we like, one with which we are comfortable, about the little guy taking on larger forces. Ultimately though, it is a thought provoking story about community, culture, family, honor, immigrants and relentless government prosecution that is truly riveting, heart felt and frightening.

What one has to remember here is something which I bring up repeatedly in one of the college classes that I teach, “Mass Communication and Popular Culture.” I tell my students that there is no such thing as objectivity in documentaries. Every documentary has a point of view, and there is nothing wrong with that. I also tell them that great documentaries have to have great characters, as do fiction films. Clearly, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is told from the point of view of the Sung family. While it is certainly a story with great characters who take on the “powers that be,” director James, much to his credit, has also had the objectivity to interview and present the points of view of New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., his prosecution team and two of the jurors who struggled reaching a verdict.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is being shown as part of the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The documentary will screen on Thursday, October 6 at 8:45 pm, in the Walter Reade Theatre at 165 W. 65 Street and on Friday, October 17 at 6:15 pm in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at 111 West 65 Street at Amsterdam Avenue. For more information visit www.filmlinc.org.



About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 1, 2016, in Documentary, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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