TIFF – ‘Abacus’ – The Charges Didn’t Add Up

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Dir. Steve James, USA, 2016, 90 minutes

 At the Toronto International Film Festival

(on Frontline at a later date)

When you think about Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James’s chronicle of the 2012 legal persecution of a small bank in Chinatown in Manhattan, you come up with the old question of whether it took a super-computer (and not a mere abacus) to figure out that the Abacus Federal Savings Bank should not have been brought to trial.

Song and Two of His Four Daughters

Song and Two of His Four Daughters

It becomes clear fairly soon that the charges of fraud against the bank should not have been brought by the District Attorney of New York, Cyrus Vance, Jr.  It tells you a lot about the relative power of big banks, local prosecutors and small community institutions that the case went to trial, and to a verdict, and that it looked a lot like a war on a family business. The moral, if you can call it that, was identified by someone in Chinatown who watched the whole drama. You can get justice in America, if you have $10 million. (There are a few Trump angles to that observation, but they are for another story.)

Justice gone awry is once again the subject for a documentary. Here the bank learns that a loan officer has been operating illegally, and informs the government. That ‘s right – the bank went to law enforcement. Then the government turns the loan officer, who testifies and blames it all on others, especially on the family that owns the bank.

Finally Acquitted

Finally Acquitted

The family patriarch is a self-made immigrant, Thomas Sung. The bank makes loans mostly in the Chinatown community (think of parallels with It’s a Wonderful Life), and its  default rate was a fraction of that of any large bank (any of the many who never faced criminal charges).

As James (Hoop Dreams) follows the trial and the family’s response to the charges, the real lesson that Vance and company seemed to be trying to force upon the Sungs and upon the larger business community in Chinatown was that small businesses should not assume that they can behave like the big boys. The Sungs, according to their indictment, acted with criminal intent –the large banks, Vance says, were ethically challenged.

Will the Defendants Please Resist

Will the Defendants Please Resist

That euphemism is an oblique but unmistakable statement about political power. Vance and other officials weren’t about to take on the big banks. They could make an example of a small one, assuming that the Sungs would plead guilty to avoid a trial, and that the Chinese community wasn’t big enough to organize any significant opposition (or big enough to keep Vance from getting re-elected.) Nor did the non-Chinese New York media give much attention to a matter that seemed restricted to Chinatown. Here is a NY Times story after the dust cleared. If my tiny precis here sounds compelling, see this the film to get the remarkable story in full. It’s at the New York Film Festival

I encountered a similar situation more than 20 years ago in New York, when a Chinese friend was murdered.

Lin Lin was an artist of rare talent and enterprising spirit, and had a relentless sense of humor. He had studied at the distinguished art school in Hangshow where the filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige and many other now-distinguished figures were students.  Lin, forced out of the school for depicting victims of a famine in the early 1960’s in Picasso’s Blue Period style, came in the 1980’s to the US, where he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts. This was pre-diversity New York, to use a quick and easy and vague term, but what that term did mean was that Chinese artists and their work didn’t get seen much anywhere in the city. (The exceptions to that rule were official artists, fresh from the Chinese Communist Party, who made Mao portraits in China and painted flattering pictures of Ronald Reagan and the oil tycoon Armand Hammer when they arrived in the U.S.) Think about it – the now-ubiquitous Ai Wewei was part of that early group of intrepid Chinese artists.

Before long, Lin Lin started calling himself Billy Harlem. And why not?  He and his wife lived on 145th Street, near CCNY, where Chinese students studied and resided without anyone noticing. When Lin Lin learned of a competition at CUNY for artists from the broader spiritual Harlem community, Lin Lin entered his work (as Billy Harlem) and won. The judges were shocked when a Chinese man showed up to claim his prize. Lin Lin would get a gallery show, but he still lived hand-to-mouth. His income came from doing sketches and brush portraits of tourists around Times Square. I remember that the cost per tourist picture then was $15 (I could be off by a few bucks), and other competing Chinese artists there brought the price down to $10. Lin Lin and his wife moved their easels to 8th Avenue one hot August Saturday night in 1991 to keep their price up.

It was there that a group of guys on the street began harassing his wife and calling her racist names. When she threw some water at them, Lin Lin intervened — one of them pulled out a gun and shot him.

The Chinese community came out in numbers for the trial, which ended in an insanity plea. Despite the packed courtrooms, not much attention to Lin Lin was paid by the New York press. I wrote about him and his killing (a story about art, immigration, the randomness of urban life, and an extraordinary creative person) for The Economist, and later for the LA Times, which gave me almost 2200 words.

Why not more attention in NY, I wondered? There were eventually two docs, both by Chinese filmmakers, about Lin Lin, but the people who remember him and who know his work today tend to be the people who knew it back then.

There’s a reason for this detour. I think Steve James traveled some similar territory in finding his story and exploring it with people who others outside the Chinese community tended to ignore, although the DA didn’t ignore them. Isn’t this what documentary filmmakers and journalists should be doing, widening the orbit of inquiry?

See Abacus, and you might wish for an interview with someone from one of the “too big to fail” banks on what he (or she?) thought of the senselessly punitive Abacus prosecution. Maybe there’s space on a Director’s Cut dvd for that. In the meantime, in the absence of the pursuit of the ethically challenged, how can we not assume that untouchable offenders won’t be back where law enforcement left them?

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