Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

The Sung family in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

The 2008 financial crisis taught all of us an unpleasant new term: “too big to fail.” Applied to banks whose demise could theoretically plunge the world’s economy into deep and sustained depression, the phrase encapsulates the brazen confidence and contempt for society personified by the pirates and robber barons of Wall Street.

Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 9, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail takes a look at a bank about as far from the Morgan Stanleys and Citibanks of the world as you can get. Serving New York City’s Chinese-American community, Abacus Federal Savings became the only bank prosecuted in the wake of the crash of ‘08 when, two years later, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. charged bank officers with almost 200 counts of falsifying business records, residential mortgage fraud, grand larceny, and conspiracy.

Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie), Abacus focuses on bank founder and President Thomas Sung and his daughters Jill and Vera, both of whom were in positions of power at Abacus when a charismatic and popular employee named Ken Yu made some questionable loans. Fired by the Sungs immediately after his transgressions were discovered and reported to the Office of Thrift Management, Yu quickly became Vance’s star witness against the family-owned bank.

The case took over five years and ate up $10 million in legal fees before the jury reached a decision, lending an almost ‘Bleak House’ quality to James’ film. While Vance and his associates (including Polly Greenberg, the county’s Major Economics Crime Bureau chief) are given plenty of screen time to defend their actions, it’s hard to walk away from Abacus without feeling the bank was singled out to take the fall for its mammoth Too Big to Fail ‘competitors’.


The lesson of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, of course, is that when you’re the 2,651st largest bank in America you may find yourself held to a different standard than the top 100. It’s also a reminder that justice is frequently neither blind nor impartial, and that prosecutors sometimes pick and choose their targets for reasons of convenience.

Three tempting movie options at BAMPFA

Los Olvidados

Cal may no longer be in session, but Pacific Film Archive remains open — and this weekend’s programming provides cinéastes with three tempting options. Kedi, a terrific documentary about feral felines that I reviewed earlier this year, screens at 6:30pm on Friday, June 9, and is followed at 8:15 p.m. by Luis Bunuel’s surreal slice of slum life, Los Olvidados (1951), which – inexplicably — has never been released on Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray. Unless you’ve got an old VHS copy hanging around, this is probably your best opportunity to see it!

Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), meanwhile, has been much better served on home video thanks to the good folks at The Criterion Collection, but a chance to see it on the big screen shouldn’t be overlooked. The story of a cell of World War II maquisards, Army of Shadows stars Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, and Jean-Pierre Cassel and screens at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 10. For what it’s worth, it’s my favorite Melville feature.