'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'
(DVD / NR / 2017 / PBS)
Overview: From Steve James, 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' tells the saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York. Accused of mortgage fraud, the indictment and trial forces the Sung family to defend themselves and their bank's legacy in the Chinatown community over the course of a five-year legal battle.
DVD Verdict: The last time acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) collaborated with FRONTLINE, the result was, The Interrupters — the gripping documentary about former street criminals in Chicago who place themselves in the line of fire to stop shootings and killings in their communities.
Now James has turned his lens on people in a different kind of struggle: the Sungs, a Chinese American family whose Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 financial crisis.
The film examines the case against the bank, hearing from prosecutors, jurors, defense lawyers, and the bank’s founder, Thomas Sung, his wife Hwei Lin, and their daughters, who James filmed over a year as they fought to clear their names.
In truth, the case was little covered at the time, and while its outcome is a matter of public record, James prefers that reviewers not reveal whether the verdict was guilty, innocent, or mixed. That's because his Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a compelling non-fiction thriller. It should engross most viewers, even those who've resisted learning what a subprime mortgage is.
As it happens, Abacus didn't deal in subprime. The Chinatown-based bank also didn't package its mortgages into the sort of financial instruments that made The Big Short's machinations so arcane. In fact, the bank had one of the lowest default rates in the country.
The problem was a loan officer, Ken Yu, who asked borrowers for bribes and falsified income statements for mortgage applications. His activities were hard to track, because, as the film explains, Chinatown residents are more likely to make cash transactions than the average American consumer. Also, Yu spoke a dialect that even most of his fellow Abacus employees didn't understand.
I won't give any more away as there is still a twist and turn to come in this gripping story, a story of whether or a not a whole family never knew if their lives were to be finished in jail. That said, cinematically, the most important piece of the legal story is a juror who was inclined to vote guilty. Her recollections keep the narrative taut until what, in Frank Capra's day, was termed the final reel. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and also comes with Mandarin Subtitles.