Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Prosecuting those "big" banks? Yeah, right. Steve James' invigorating, infuriating doc, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

Those of us who lived in the New York City area back in 2012 may remember a news story about a small community bank located in Manhattan's Chinatown, the heads of which were arrested and taken off in handcuffs as they kept their faces from being seen -- to major media coverage, of course -- due to their supposedly falsifying loan applications for mortgages. This sort of thing was what nearly brought the world economy to its knees, right? So, hey: finally law enforcement is going after the bad guys? Yeah, sure.

Steve James, shown at left, who has over the years given us some pretty impressive documentaries (Hoop Dreams and Life Itself come immediately to mind), now offers up a doc -- ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL -- that practically defines the word injustice, showing it masquerading as its very opposite while simultaneously taking in other American preoccupations such as racism, bullying and toadying to wealth and power. All of this is shown so clearly, quietly and therefore all the more shockingly by Mr. James -- via the Chinese-American family that owns the bank and who had to endure years of prosecution and its accompanying trauma and stress -- that the viewer's response at the end of this 90-minute documentary is likely to be one of relief coupled to immense anger.

How Mr. James weaves his tale of how and why and what happened next is exemplary, letting us watch and learn how this bank, that had served its community so well over decades, came into being and continued to operate. We meet the bank's founder Thomas Sung (above), his wife Hwei Lin (below) and and their daughters. shown further below -- one of whom worked for the very justice department that prosecuted the bank.

We also learn how the bank handled -- in the kind of exemplary fashion that, had the bigger banks done the same, might have prevented the financial crisis -- the loan officer who it discovered was arranging fraudulent loans. The trial itself, that we see via courtroom drawings, is handled with verve and suspense. Thanks to the media coverage, which as usual is very big on initial arrest and less so regarding further results, you may not know or remember how things turned out.

We get to know the family somewhat, too -- from Mr. and Mrs Sung's loved of everyone's favorite "banking" movie (It's a Wonderful Life) to their eating habits and how the kids must care for their dad -- as the film wends its way to completion.

How the prosecution, led by District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and his staff, built its case (out of very little and yet cost taxpayers 10 million dollars and five years of time) adds to the anger that arises and should make those of us who voted for Vance very sorry for our misplaced trust. How the prosecution reacts to its failure proves even more sour and troubling.

What rankles most, however, is the constant sense of injustice that hovers over this entire movie. Why this bank -- when its record concerning solid loans that were paid off was among the very best? Why this bank -- which, when it first learned of the irregular practices of its loan officer, fired the man and immediately reported the incident to compliance? Why this bank -- which served its community's needs for so long and so well?

See the documentary, arrive at your own conclusions, and start seething. From PBS Distribution, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens this Friday, May 19, in New York City at the IFC Center, in Los Angeles on June 9 at Landmark's NuArt, and will then have a limited release nationwide.
Click here to find the theater nearest you.

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