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Thomas Sung just wanted to be like George Bailey. At the beginning of Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin Sung, are watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and in voiceover he says that his motivation in founding a bank in New York’s Chinatown was similar to George’s: He wanted to help immigrants get housing. “I wish this story could end the same way as It’s a Wonderful Life,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not that simple.”
That’s one hell of an understatement. In 2008, the reality was the financial crisis that crippled our country and soon affected global markets when major fraud and risky lending practices by Wall Street giants had been uncovered. Upward of 10 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure or eviction after being granted subprime mortgages that they couldn’t afford to pay.
One consequence of this was that major banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase were bailed out despite their blatant corruption. No top executives were jailed or even indicted. There was, however, one bank whose employees had been tried in court: The Sung family, owners and operators of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, who had a branch of one.
Ironically, the family’s indictment was a result of Sung daughter and attorney Vera discovering that an employee, Ken Yu, had taken money from a young couple under the guise of putting it toward their mortgage. She and her sister Jill, the bank’s president, fired Yu along with a handful of other employees after discovering a string of violations and reported the activity to the police and industry regulators. “We went beyond what we were supposed to do,” Jill said. But the couple whose dream of owning a home fell apart also went to police, leading to a criminal investigation and 184 charges against the bank. The family would spend five years defending their integrity.
James (Life Itself, The Interrupters) filmed Abacus as a by-the-numbers documentary: background, conflict, resolution, with talking heads on either side of the case interspersed throughout, including two jurors. But he also incorporates courtroom sketches and recordings of the trial that may trigger viewer indignation, such as when Yu is on the stand and admitting to his corrupt practices. Also infuriating is the visual of indicted employees being led to the courtroom chained to each other. “[They] never would have done that with a black group of employees,” notes investigative journalist David Lindorff. “Everyone would have seen that for what it was.”
What James ensures you’ll take away from the documentary is the moral fortitude of the Sung family. Thomas spent half his career as a lawyer but started the bank after deciding he wanted to “do something for society.” His three daughters are also lawyers, and though Vera and Jill were already involved with the bank, sister Chanterelle quit her job at the district attorney’s office to support her family as well. It’s clear that their sense of ethics and concern for the family’s reputation are steadfast, even in industries in which corruption thrives. But because going after Wall Street would have been ruinous for the U.S. economy, the law wanted to make Abacus an example.
Particularly ludicrous out of the trial’s many absurdities was the charge of larceny against Fannie Mae, when in truth the lender made money off of Abacus because the bank had one of the country’s lowest default rates. “Frankly, if every bank had underwritten as well as Abacus during the indictment period,” a commenter says, “we wouldn’t have had a financial crisis.”
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.