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Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

07 July, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Thomas Sung in Abacus

Directed by Steve James
Certificate PG

One, single bank in America faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. And, remarkably, it wasn’t one of the big names such as Fannie Mac or Morgan Chase who were put in the dock. No – the big banks got bailed out by public money, despite their role in causing the sub-prime mortgage crash.

Instead, a bank called Abacus – a small, family-run firm based in New York’s Chinatown – was the only finance company subjected to a criminal investigation.

And as this documentary reveals, the weight of the District Attorney’s office was thrown into building a case against them. It’s as if they are taking the flak for an entire industry’s failings.

Abacus are small fry: they have 1/100th of a per cent of the assets of the Bank of America. The Sung family make for brilliant copy. Patriarch Thomas was a neighbourhood lawyer. Four decades ago he was fed up of seeing banks taking large deposits from the Chinese community but then refusing to give them small loans for businesses or homes.

With the help of his three daughters, Abacus was born.

We learn that one of the credit checking mortgage brokers, Ken Hu, was boosting the income of those applying on forms, and taking cash kick backs. As the financial crisis struck, one of the officers overseeing his work saw what was going on – so the bank sacked Hu and went to the authorities with evidence.

But instead of going after the individual, prosecutors decided the bank must be at fault – and started a five-year investigation and subsequent court case.

This is a timely documentary, with the Sung family great subjects. Director Steve James takes a global issue and personalises it. Interviews with prosecutors, lawyers, the family and their clients creates a bigger picture.

It is interesting to watch a film that shows how the banking crisis came about. We have been peddled a lie that financial troubles were because of the Labour government’s urge to fund public services. This shows what nonsense such claims were – and that austerity is a political philosophy, not an attempt to rein in out-of-control public finances.


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