Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Thomas Sung relates to George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. In the 1980s, he was a busy lawyer in New York City, but he saw a need. There was no bank serving the Chinese immigrant community. Institutions were willing to take in millions in deposits from Chinese families but were unwilling to extend them credit so that they could buy homes and develop roots in the city. Motivated to help, Sung founded Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In the decades that followed, his daughters Jill and Vera joined him at the family company, and the business grew.
And then, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Abacus was the only U.S. bank accused of mortgage fraud. This stunning film chronicles the Sungs’s legal battle as they fight to defend their business and their family name. The New York County District Attorney’s Office indicted the bank on evidence surrounding a single incident, which Abacus had willingly disclosed, claiming that the Sungs and other employees had conspired to commit fraud. Through interviews with people with vastly different points of view—journalists covering the trial, defense lawyers, the DA’s office, including District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.—James provides a fully realized portrait of the complicated realities of the case. Courtroom sketches and transcripts illustrate the daily events of the trial, but the heart of the film is in its intimate access to the Sung family. In addition to Thomas, Jill, and Vera, the film features Thomas’s wife, Hwei Lin, and daughters Heather, a physician, and Chanterelle, a former prosecutor for the district attorney who has left the office to help her family. We see their resilience through the day-by-day stress of the trial, including scenes around family meals and interviews that reveal the very personal wear and tear of these accusations. With humor and energy, this remarkable film tracks the many twists and turns of the case, while introducing us to a family that shares an unforgettable bond. ST
Moderated conversation following screening
Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
John Farbrother, David E. Simpson