Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Movie Poster Image
Informative but dry docu on the trial of a small bank.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 90 minutes

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Positive Messages

Documentary shows the importance of community, especially in ethnic neighborhoods and for first-wave immigrants in the United States. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Thomas Hung and his four daughters display integrity and perseverance as the small Chinatown community bank Thomas started faces charges of embezzlement, bribery, and larceny. 


"S--t" used once. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Champagne drinking at a party. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a documentary about a small community Chinatown bank that was the only U.S. bank to face charges after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. The biggest concern for families is whether teens and kids are interested in banking and finance. Even as the documentary is presented as an underdog story, one with overzealous prosecutors seeming to go after a small bank while ignoring the banks that were "too big to fail," the subject matter is still dry for many people. However, the documentary is very timely, especially in how it portrays a district attorney's office seeming to find a "slam dunk" case by going after a small bank serving a seemingly powerless minority and immigrant group. There's one use of the word "s--t," and champagne drinking at a party. 

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What's the story?

In ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, Abacus Bank was taken to trial by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office in 2015, charged with dozens of counts of conspiracy, larceny, and systematic fraud. Abacus, a small community bank serving Chinatown in New York City, was started by first-generation Chinese immigrant Thomas Hung, who works with his four daughters to oversee the bank's operations. When they discovered that lower-level employees were engaged in questionable practices, they fired the employees, and the Hungs went to the government to inform them of what happened, even presenting documentation showing the illegal activities and how they rectified the situation. No matter. Abacus, not even in the top 5,000 largest banks, was taken to trial, its employees taken out handcuffed to each other and paraded before the media in a manner many veteran attorneys had never seen. This was also in the wake of the much larger banks being "too big to fail" despite committing far more damaging crimes that nearly sunk the economy; Abacus was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges. The arrests and prosecution of many of the employees reminds them of the persecution they faced while still living in China, and while the Manhattan District Attorney denies the racist and immigrant-bashing subtext of his office's zeal, the residents of Chinatown, the Hungs, and many experienced legal observers don't see it that way. The Hungs fight back, and in the trial must prove their innocence and restore the good name of their family as well as the bank they created in the interests of serving the Chinese-American immigrant community. 

Is it any good?

While the subject matter is interesting and timely, there are times when it feels like there isn't enough to the story to make this a feature-length documentary. Even with the subtext of "the little guy" facing the full weight of the law while the real crooks from the biggest banks get off scot-free because they're "too big to fail," there's a dryness to Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. 

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see a bank in a documentary being portrayed as "the good guy" in a story; bank founder Thomas Hung is frequently compared to George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life --Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin are even shown tearing up while watching a beloved favorite movie of theirs. At a time when larger banks seem to be constantly coming up with new ways to nickel-and-dime away the money of their less affluent customers through fee after fee, Hung reminds the viewer that there are some bankers out there who want to help create better lives for their customers. This makes their trial all the more disturbing, but not quite enough to sustain it for its 88 minutes. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about documentaries. How does the straightforward approach of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail differ from other types of documentaries? 

  • How did the documentary use scenes from the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life to illuminate what the Sung family and Abacus bank were contending with? 

  • How does this documentary address contemporary issues of concern for immigrant communities in their dealings with the government? 

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