In 2012, Abacus, a small family-owned Chinese bank in Chinatown, was accused of larceny, conspiracy, and systemic fraud. Steve James, a documentary filmmaker known for great films like Hoop Dreams and Life Itself is very gifted at, as Matt Zoller Seitz says in his review of the film, “finding the universal in the specific.” In 2015, the Chinese Sung family, owners of Abacus, were taken to trial for their “fabricated” loan paperwork submitted to hugely popular Fannie Mae. Thomas and Hwei Lin Sung, the founding couple of Abacus, are portrayed by the media and by the D.A.’s office as a wily, criminal couple. James’s film reminds us that Chinese immigrants have, throughout history, far too easily been made the villain by both the fact-based and fiction-based Western media.
I remember seeing the reporting on live television in 2012 when the Sungs, including their daughters Vera, Jill (both Abacus executives), Heather, and Chantrelle, were all brought up on charges by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. James’s film is a parable that warns of the dangers of accepting what you see in the media at face value. James works hard in his film to portray both sides of the case. He interviews the entire broken-hearted Sung family while also interviewing Vance, Jr. But, James’s film makes one thing very clear: the Sung family had nothing to do with the criminal behavior of the employees in the Abacus loan department. In fact, the record shows that, as soon as Thomas Sung and Vera Sung discovered the criminal behavior of the members of the loan department, they reported it to the police and turned over all records of Fannie Mae transactions, willingly.
James is making a case in his film. He does not make the mistake, as some documentarians have done, of avoiding an ethical position on the story he is exposing. James is fighting, hard, for the innocence of the Sung family. James’s case is that Vance, Jr. was primarily concerned with proving to the New York State Legislature that he could crack down on white-collar crime in his city. The Sungs were a perfect fit for Vance, Jr.’s agenda. They are wealthy, Chinese immigrant bankers. They must hate hard-working Americans, right?
Well, Abacus reminds us that the Sungs should not be considered separate from Americans, but rather, considered fully American. Immigrants matter. If there is actually anything great about our nation, it is immigrants like the Sung family who make it so. James and the Sung family are daring in their determination to tell their story. They are a family that enjoys their Chinese heritage as well as being American. They squabble about the matters of life. They take banking very seriously; that is to say, they take their community in Chinatown very seriously. They squabble about how dry the bread on a sandwich is. They may not hug each other or tell each other “I love you” but they are always there for each other, fighting the good fight.
James opens his film with scenes from Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. We watch as George Bailey (James Stewart) delivers his heartwarming speech during the bank crash that began the Great Depression. Bailey runs a bank that serves the local people of Bedford Falls. They are his people. He is their friend. They trust him. It’s a Wonderful Life is Thomas Sung’s favorite film and we listen as he describes in voiceover how George Bailey’s story inspired him to open his own bank and serve his people, Chinese immigrants primarily, in America. Steve James, just by making his documentary, is returning the favor. He is reminding the Sung family and the world, that the greatest champions of the marginalized are often the easiest to profile, dismiss, misunderstand, and demonize.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a great documentary film. It draws attention to a singular, focused story and reminds us of its universal impact. If a documentary can possible vindicate the Sung family, then it is worthwhile to view it and spread the word.