A documentary about a small, family-owned bank during the 2008 financial crisis wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of my must-watch list, but this isn’t the normal corrupt-bank story. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a Chinese immigrant success story.
Thomas Sung immigrated to America when he was 16 and studied to become a lawyer. Instead of pursuing a life in law, he thought he should give back to the Chinese-American community and fill a need in Chinatown, New York. He decided to start a bank, Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which primarily serves the clientele of Chinatown. He grew a rapport with the people, and because of that, he’s well-liked and trusted, the qualities any banker should have. He starts a family with his wife, Hwei Lin Sung; they have four daughters, two of whom work at Abacus.
The bank had been doing well, and it had been in operation since 1984, growing into six branches in three states. But the economic collapse in 2008 caused a stir for the bank, which no one in the Sung family was expecting.
In December 2009, a home loan closing document didn’t appear to be correct when it was being reviewed. The Sungs traced it back to one of their loan officers, Ken Yu, who had actually stolen the borrower’s money and committed fraud. Once the Sungs found this, they hired outside consultants to review loan documents and go through their loan office.
They found that more loan officers had been committing similar crimes, just not to the degree of Yu. The Sungs fired Yu and other loan officers. Then, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance indicted Abacus and the Sungs of fraud — even after they had taken all the right steps in correcting their mistakes.
Now, the Sung family and Abacus are tied up in legal matters that Vance appears to believe he can win. Vance basically asks the Sungs to just plead guilty. But this family knows they are not in the wrong. Ironically, throughout the whole mess of the case, Yu was used as the prosecution’s star witness to testify against the Sungs.
The documentary has all of the vibes of a good mystery crime show, and we aren’t sure what the outcome will be. It’s super stressful watching the court case go on day after day and seeing the court system’s setbacks the family faced. But through it all, the Sungs stuck together and always made time to eat dinner as a family.
That’s not to say the legal business stopped. The family would bicker over what their next move should be. When the Sungs ate dinner together, it was humorous to watch — it was a serious time for them, but somehow Mrs. Sung always said the most hilarious things. She wasn’t trying to be funny, but she was definitely the comic relief from the financial law conversations.
What also made this documentary special was that we heard from financial experts. One compared the charges against Abacus to jaywalking, as this case should not have been taken to such extreme measures. Then we also heard from two jury members who both had differing strong opinions on the case. It was interesting for me to hear from these jurors because that’s not a perspective we see a lot. They spoke about how, when they were deliberating, the room was divided evenly for quite some time between guilty and not guilty.
The cinematography was also spectacular and fit perfectly with the topic of this documentary. It was clean-cut and broke this complicated financial law topic down for the regular person. It felt very much like a criminal case with thoughts from experts, Vance, the Sungs and the jurors. Everyone got their word in, which helped build the case — and the anticipation — for the viewers. Since there could not be any cameras in the court during the trials, the documentary team hired a court artist to sketch the court scenes that they then used to portray the trial.
Following the 2008 economic collapse, Abacus was the only bank in the U.S. to face criminal charges. The family-owned bank really was just “small enough to jail” because no one wanted to pick on the large corporate banks like J.P. Morgan or Citibank.
In 2015, the jury finally came to a decision, and the Sungs’ five-year ordeal was finally over. They knew that whatever happened, they would make it; the family has a lot of faith in the American justice system But like good crime shows, I won’t reveal the verdict until you watch it for yourself.
MOVE gives Abacus: Small Enough to Jail 5 out of 5 stars.