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Review:

'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' turns bankers into tragic heroes

Only one bank faced criminal charges in the aftermath of 2008’s global financial meltdown, and it wasn’t one you might expect.

If behemoths like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley were judged too big to fail, then tiny community-oriented Abacus Federal Savings in New York’s Chinatown — only the 2,651st largest bank in the U.S., with assets but a fraction of the big boys — was deemed as one observer tartly puts it, “small enough to jail.”

Not surprisingly seeing the potential of this story was Steve James, one of America’s most accomplished and socially conscious documentarians with films such as “The Interrupters,” “Head Games” and the classic “Hoop Dreams” on his decades-long résumé.

The film that resulted, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” is a potent examination of how and why the choice was made to go after Abacus and what that action says about the ways the factors involved in American justice play out.

It’s a deeper look than we usually get into the extent to which these decisions are judgment calls by prosecutors, influenced by a wide range of factors. Indictments are not inevitable fait accompli but fluid situations that, absent preconceptions and preconditions, could have gone another way.

James is helped enormously in telling this story by the wide range of interview subjects he was able to put on screen, starting with the complete cooperation of Thomas Sung, the bank's founder and chairman, his articulate wife and their four formidable adult daughters.

In addition to the inevitable complement of journalists (which in this case include Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and the New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan), James was able to extensively interview the people who decided to bring the prosecution, New York County Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance Jr. and Polly Greenberg, the chief of his office’s Major Economic Crimes Bureau.

“Abacus” begins with a clip from one of the few American films with a banker hero, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. It’s a favorite film of Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin Sung, who tear up when they watch. As to his own banking story, Thomas admits, “in reality it’s not that simple.”

Born in Shanghai and arriving in the U.S. at age 16, Thomas was a lawyer before he founded his bank. Helping New York’s Chinese community has always been one of his key focuses.

Thomas started Abacus because he realized that while major banks were happy to take deposits from Chinese customers, they were unwilling to make loans. Set up to appeal to his immigrant neighbors, who often lack secure places for their valuables, Abacus for instance rents out 8,000 safe deposit boxes, way more than the norm.

But while this ought to be a heartwarming story, it has another side: a legal case that lasted five years, culminated in a four-month trial and ended up costing the Sungs $10 million to defend.

One of the ironies of the Abacus prosecution is that it began with a case of fraud by one of the bank’s loan officers that Abacus itself discovered and reported to federal authorities.

So when the government decided that complicity with corruption went high enough to indict the entire bank, the Sung family was shocked.

This included not only the two sisters (Jill Sung and Vera Sung) who ran the bank but also sister Chanterelle Sung, a former assistant district attorney in Vance’s office who was so distraught by what she saw as the “incompetence combined with arrogance” in the indictment that she quit her job.

Because Thomas took the charges, and some inexcusable humiliation that went along with it, as an insult to the entire Chinatown community, he refused to back down even in the face of an intense government investigation that took five years, used hundreds of lawyers and led to a 240-count indictment.

The trial itself was off limits to cameras, but the film does an expert job re-creating it using actors reading testimony and vivid courtroom illustrations by Christine Cornell. It's not every day that you end up rooting for a bank, but the story “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” tells is no ordinary tale.

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‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Ave., Station North

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

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