Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
As fairly recent history, cinema has nonetheless been quick to document the causes and aftermath of the global financial crisis. Whether it’s the slickly dramatised style of Margin Call or the quiet indignation of Inside Job, filmmakers have offered answers where hitherto the institutions themselves had offered none. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail may be the only project centred around the financial collapse that has viewers rooting for the bank, putting a sympathetic face to an otherwise anonymous institution. Abacus is many things at once – a legal thriller, a family portrait, and a social documentary on the unique make-up of Chinatown – and it succeeds at all of them.
Thomas and Hwei Lin Sung are proud and active members of the local Chinese community; his career as a lawyer, often spent doing pro bono work, takes a turn after he decides to launch Abacus, servicing clientele (often first generation immigrants) to whom the mainstream institutions don’t cater. Working with his four daughters, the Sungs uncover various offences within their loan department – larceny, embezzlement and fraud – releasing their details to Fannie Mae, to ensure they’re fully compliant. What ensues is a five-year long witch-hunt/legal battle, led by Cyrus Vance, Manhattan District Attorney, whose re-election is not threatened by this minority community. Despite the Sung family being far enough removed from the actual crimes, the only thing they appear guilty of is poor oversight.
The question of racial bias is valid, and the injustice of Abacus being the only bank in America to be indicted for fraud following 2008 is absurd, with the Sungs’ lawyer claiming “if the other banks had been underwriting loans as well as Abacus, we wouldn’t have had a financial collapse”. Abacus wasn’t critical to the stability of the US economy, and the DA used his discretion to render them a target or vehicle for widespread frustration at the financial climate. What he didn’t count on was the intelligence, charm and community-backed support of this one family.
Director Steve James, whose celebrated 1992 debut Hoop Dreams ushered in a new era of popularity for the genre, constructs a charming portrait of this tight-knit community in the midst of their David v Goliath battle. The Sungs are demonstrably close and witheringly intelligent, and the film’s most affecting scenes are those that examine the toll the case takes upon all of them, as they try in various ways to shield one another from the burden of proof and the stress of the trial. Simply put, it is a privilege to spend time in their company, James paints a warm portrait of a Chinatown thriving off the backs of small businesses (many of them supported by Abacus itself). Playing off the phrase “too big to fail”, that would come to justify the light penalties imposed on fraudulent banks, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail creates thriller-like levels of suspense over its brisk 90 minutes, and reignites our fury and curiosity over the events of 2008.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is released in selected cinemas on 7th July 2017.
Watch the trailer for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail here: