Film Review: ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (USA 2017) ***

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abacus.jpgA small financial institution called Abacus becomes the only company criminally indicted in the wake of the United States’ 2008 mortgage crisis.

Director: Steve James
Stars: Neil Barofsky, Ti-Hua Chang, Margaret Colin

Review by Gilbert Seah

 ABACUS is an old Chinese adding machine that was commonly used by Chinese shopkeepers who needed to do some accounting or simple addition. It is also a Chinese treasure now made obsolete with the introduction of the calculator. Abacus is thus chosen as the appropriate name for the bank founded by a well-intentioned Chinese lawyer turned banker, who we are introduced to at the start of the film as a good man, who thinks of himself as George Bailey, the James Stewart banker character in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In fact when there is a run on Abacus, Mr. Thomas Sung is likened to Bailey giving a sincere speech to the queue of customers assuring them that the bank is ernest and hat their money is safe.

Why a documentary of this bank and on the man Mr. Sung? The reason, according to the director is that this small Chinese bank has been unfairly singled out by the NYC District Attorney’s Office as a fraudulent bank who with its owners had committed a crime in misappropriating funds for personal and illegal gain.

But the D.A. Office picked the wrong man to pick a fight with. Mr. Sung is a fighter. The documentary is an account of the fight between the small guy and the bully, a David vs. Goliath story where the slingshot weapon used was the team of Mr. Sung’s lawyers and family.

Director gets the audience on Mr. Sung’s side by using a variety of means. The first is to connect the audience with Mr. Sung’s immediate family. Besides the analogy of George Bailey, the honest and best example of a banker, one cannot help but root for the Sung family, especially watching scenes where the family sit together to argue the facts and to fight back against the D.A. Office. Interviews are also conducted with reporters who take the side of the bank. The bank is also shown to have done good to help the Chinese community to obtain loans, which no normal bank would normally grant.

The film also documents how the bank got into trouble – in fact twice with regard to fraudulence. But according to the film, the bank had fired the dishonest and despicable loan officer, Mr. Ken Lu who the D.A. Office used to testify against the bank.

The film is a sad story of the Sung family. But the film makes a hero of Mr. Sung and his family. One of the daughters who worked at that time for the D.A. Office had to reign due to, obviously conflict of interest but she did so to help her father. Not surprisingly, the wife, Mrs. Sung says on camera that she never wanted her husband or daughters to go into the banking business.

ABACUS achieves the feat of making the subject even more intriguing by hitting all the right buttons. Everyone loves to see the underdog win, especially when fighting an evil giant. ABACUS is such a tale with a smashing finish.

Trailer: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/abacus/15c410ca34696ff5?projector=1

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