A family-run Chinese bank takes a bullet for Wall Street in Small Enough To Jail

By Liam Lacey

Documentary director, Steve James, known for Hoop DreamsThe Interruptors and the Roger Ebert film, Life Itself, has certain themes — family, social justice, the American Dream.

All of these are quietly in play in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail a low-key film with a memorable after-effect.  The story unfolds around family meetings, around desks and dinner tables where two generations of a Chinese-American family, the Sungs, gather, exchange opinions and strategize.

They're an articulate, appealing group, a father, mother, and four sisters, including three lawyers and a doctor. They’re talking about something they care deeply about, the defense of their reputations and their family business, a community bank based in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Jill, Vera and Thomas Sung in Abacus: Small Enough To Jail

Jill, Vera and Thomas Sung in Abacus: Small Enough To Jail

The patriarch, Thomas Sung, born in Shanghai, came to the United States as a teenager and trained as a lawyer. In middle-age, he decided to start a bank, specializing in Chinese immigrants seeking loans who were too intimidated or limited by language to deal with mainstream banks. He flourished, and became a popular neighbourhood figure, who identified with Jimmy Stewart, the benign small-town banker from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

Then, in 2012, with little warning, Manhattan District Attorney slammed the small community bank with 240 charges, including a widespread conspiracy to commit fraud. District attorney Cyrus R. Vance, linked the charges to the 2008 financial crisis (in which none of the giant national banks was charged). 

Did fraud exist at the Abacus Bank? Yes, though the film makes a convincing case that there was no compelling evidence of a conspiracy. When the fraud was discovered at the loan officer level, it was promptly reported and the culprits fired.  The prosecution's tactics -- including parading 19 Asian men and women to the courthouse in shackles before the media -- seemed wildly disproportionate, a political show trial with an ugly racist twist, though a charge the DA's office vigorously denies.

Along with chronicling the Sung family's experiences, commentary is provided by various lawyers and journalists. Principal among them: Matt Taibbi, who wrote about the bank in his book, Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,  and who provides the film with its title, a play on the phrase "too big to fail" (used to justify the bailouts and dearth of criminal charges levelled at banks and their executives in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). 

Particularly helpful is New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan, in providing cultural context, and the degree that the prosecution displayed cultural blindness to the cash economy mindset of the immigrant community (many Abacus mortgages registered with Fannie Mae listed financial “gift-loans” from relatives, which were interpreted as loans, and therefore fraud).

Abacus does not serve up a clear villain, though the overall portrait of the prosecution’s approach is sadly instructive. This is a movie about a family - winners of the American Dream sweepstakes - who, nonetheless, have certain vulnerabilities, in who they know, where they come from and what they look like.  All these factors made them subject to the abuse, or at best the incompetence, of the powerful.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. Directed by Steve James.  At the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Fri. June 2, 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m.. Sat. June 3, 4 p.m. Monday, June 5, 6:30 p.m. Thurs. June 8, 1 p.m.

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather