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Film / Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a 2016 documentary feature by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame.

It tells the story of the federal prosecution of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. Abacus was and is a bank located in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City. It was founded by lawyer Tom Sung in 1984 specifically to serve the Chinese-American community of New York, and continued to be run as a family business by his daughters Jill and Vera Sung. In December 2009 widespread mortgage fraud (kickbacks, money laundering, income and document falsification) was discovered to be taking place among loan officers at the bank. The Sungs promptly fired the culpable employees but are horrified when they realize that they themselves and their bank are being prosecuted for larceny and conspiracy. The film chronicles the efforts of the Sung family to clear its name.



  • Blatant Lies: Ken Yu is caught out as a perjurer when he denies ever asking borrowers for a cash kickback, followed by an audio recording of Yu asking a borrower for a cash kickback.
  • Documentary: Portraying the criminal prosecution of a bank in Manhattan's Chinatown.
  • Dramatization: Since cameras aren't allowed in federal courtrooms, testimony from the trial is recreated with actor voiceovers that play over courtroom sketches. (Margaret Colin of Independence Day fame provides the voice of the prosecuting attorney.)
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After five years of investigation, two months of trial, and a very long jury deliberation, Abacus and the Sungs are acquitted of all charges.
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: The bank was founded to serve the local Chinese community and several scenes show Tom Sung interacting with his fellow Chinese-Americans. Interviewees suggest that the unique nature of the local Chinese community, with many new arrivals to America and many people working cash jobs with unreported income, helped facilitate the fraud.
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  • Horrible Judge of Character: While the film takes the position that the Sungs were innocent of fraud and unaware of the crimes of their underlings at the bank, they did hire eight people who later pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud. The film also notes that another Abacus executive absconded with a million dollars of the bank's money in 2003.
  • Karma Houdini: Carol Lim, who stole a million dollars of Abacus money in 2003, precipitating a Depression-style run on the bank, was never caught.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used many times, like when there's a slow zoom into a picture of loan officer Ken Yu when others explain the crimes Yu committed at Abacus.
  • Perp Walk: A major point of contention is the decision by authorities to take indicted Abacus employees out of the courthouse in a literal chain gang, where they were all handcuffed together. The Sungs charge that this was a deliberate humiliation.
  • The Scapegoat: A theme of the movie. The central question is why Abacus Savings, a small local bank, was the only bank to be prosecuted for crimes related to the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession when major international banking conglomerates like Chase Manhattan only had to pay relatively trivial fines.
  • Shout-Out: The movie opens with the Sungs watching It's a Wonderful Life, which Tom Sung describes as an inspiration that led him to get into the banking business. This also sets up a Call-Back later when the story of the run on Abacus is illustrated with the run-on-the-bank scene from It's a Wonderful Life.
  • Stealing from the Till: The film notes that a bank officer named Carol Lim ran away with a million dollars of Abacus money in 2003.
  • Talking Heads: In classic documentary style. Surprisingly, the film includes interviews from district attorney Cyrus Vance and prosecuting attorney Polly Greenberg, both of whom come off badly.
  • Title Drop: From author Matt Taibbi, who says "Abacus is small enough to jail."
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A brief one that notes that Ken Yu's plea deal was revoked and he went to jail, while Abacus continues to operate with stricter federal oversight.

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