Abacus: Small Enough to Jail



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

        May 16, 2017.  Last October I wrote an article about

 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” a documentary which was

shown as part of the New York Film Festival. While I

realize most readers might not have been able to

make it to the festival, how fortunate it is that this

excellent documentary will start a run at IFC Center

on Friday, May 19.

        Theatrical releases can be challenging for

documentaries. The typical moviegoer may not

think of a documentary as being as gripping or

interesting as a main stream film. In the case of

Abacus: Small Enought to Jail,” how wrong that

reasoning would be.

        “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

deemed “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, and was

singled out for prosecution, as the proxy for the much bigger

banking corruption that was not, and apparently could not, be


        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


        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.  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.

        What has to taken into account 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 and is

very sympathetic to them. While this

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 to reach a verdict.

        Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is an iconic story.

It is one that we like and 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.

IFC Center is located at 323 Sixth Avenue. Visit

www.ifccenter.com for more information.


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 May 16, 2017, in Documentary, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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