Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Steve James
Cast: Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Heather Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Matt Taibbi, Cyrus Vance Jr.
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/26/17
Opens: May 19, 2017
Specifically in May 2012 the Abacus bank and nineteen of its employees were prosecuted on fraud charges relating to hundreds of millions of dollars of mortgages sold to Fannie Mae between 2005 and 2010. The D.A., who took an active role in the prosecution. The principal defendant Thomas Sung, a lawyer born in Shanghai and known in New York for much pro bono service to Chinese-Americans, fired the one employee who, he admits, was guilty of fraud. To further his case, Mr. Sung points out that the default rate of 0.3% was only one-tenth the national average.
Where is the evidence of such potential felonies as selling sub-par mortgage loans to Fannie Mae with the hope of conning that body? We can see why Steve James took the job of director of “Abacus,” given his social conscience, as he directed such movies as “At the Death House Door”—about a prison chaplain who, after presiding at Texas executions came out against capital punishment.
One of the best aspects of the film “Abacus” is that while many people speak, some excited members of the Sung family speaking over others, James avoids questioning a bunch of talking heads sitting in chairs. Archival film, of course, is shown, principally the blocks around New York’s Chinatown with a few scenes in a restaurant seating the Sung family around a large table with an enviable supply of dark green vegetables and noodles. A nice surprise as well are some clips from Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart in the role of George Bailey, who saves his town of New Bedford from the forces of greed.
Steve James has not made a movie to compete with Frank Capra’s, but in subtle strokes and a booming victory party, we in the audience see that rare struggle that pits David against Goliath, and it would not be much of a spoiler to say that the bank’s executive staff after some seventy days of trial and seven or so days of jury deliberations, were found not guilty. Yet considering the heartaches, headaches, and ten million dollars that the not guilty charge entailed, this was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory.
One may wonder how many people charged with misdemeanors or felonies plead guilty rather than face weeks, maybe months of litigation with the chance that though innocent, they may not be able to convince a jury. If only ten percent of people charged with felonies demanded jury trials, the criminal justice system would come to a halt. Kudos to Thomas Sung for showing that Chinese-Americans are not the passive group that they are stereotypically considered to be.
Unrated 88 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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