Jan. 10, 2018 at 6:25 p.m.
Review: ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2018)
Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Heather Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Matt Taibbi, Cyrus Vance Jr
Directed by Steve James
Apart from Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when was the last time you rooted for anyone working at a bank? Yeah, never. All of that is about to change as you become acquainted with 80-year old Thomas Sung who, with the help of his family, runs the 2,651st largest bank in America. Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin tear up every time they watch the Capra classic, but their life has been anything but wonderful after being charged with mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Did I mention they were the only bank the Feds went after?
In 1984 Sung started The Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown after he felt the need to help the Chinese community, many of whom couldn’t get loans at any of the other banks, even the ones located in the neighborhood that were more than happy to accept their deposits. Sung was already well known to the Chinatown residents thanks to his law practice and involvement in the community who supported the financial institution which the expansion of four branches.
Then in 2008, the banking crisis hit as huge financial institutions that included Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Lehman Brothers crashed thanks to the high default rate in the subprime home mortgage sector. The U.S. government spent billions to bail out the financial institutions instead of holding them accountable. The government did go after one bank, Abacus, and they didn’t even deal in subprime mortgages. So, what happened? The unbelievable story is the basis for the documentary from accomplished filmmaker Steve James who burst onto the scene with 1994’s “Hoop Dreams.”
There are many players that come into the picture including Sung’s daughters, Jill and Vera, who ran the bank for their father. They were well educated, honest, and hard working. So why did the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office go after the Abacus bank especially since Sung’s third daughter Chantrelle worked as an assistant in District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office? That’s the million-dollar question. Or should I say $10 million-dollar question? That’s the amount of money the Sung family spent defending themselves in court on a trail that lasted for five years.
Was there wrongdoing at the bank? Yes. The name you’ll want to remember is loan officer Ken Yu. Was the Sung family involved? No. In fact, they reported the illegal activity to regulators only to have the D.A.’s office recruit Yu to be their star witness against the financial institution.
I’m not sure if you or I would have been able to survive the stress the Sung family endured during the five-year ordeal. The documentary features interviews with the Sung family as well as District Attorney Vance and his assistant Polly Greenberg who don’t seem very remorseful about the actions taken by their office including parading bank employees in handcuffs down a hallway like members of a chain gang for the media. The incredible story is also discussed by journalists Jiayang Fan and Matt Taibbi who share their insights for the documentary.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” focuses on the family and the injustices they faced but there is not much accountability in the James documentary just different viewpoints from all sides. Don’t expect an ending like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or one big stand up and cheer moment. Just get ready to be captivated by a story so absurd that it has to be true.
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