Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 12.12: Steve James, the Sung family and “Abacus” Documentary

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail was a standout favorite documentary of CAAMFest 35 this year, and will be released at the Landmark Opera Plaza and Landmark Shattuck on Friday June 9th, with director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) and members of the Sung family in attendance. It is also being shown theatrically around the country — check the film’s website for a complete schedule. The documentary will also be coming soon to PBS.

Abacus is an intimate look at the Sung family’s resolve as their bank serving predominantly the Chinese immigrant community in New York City became the only bank prosecuted after the 2008 Great Recession. The Sung’s literal trial and tribulation provides incredible insight into all-too-familiar human experiences of scapegoating, shaming, and the sometimes adversarial nature of the American legal system. The Sung’s are a dynamic group of individuals who sometimes argue vociferously yet build consensus – a delight to see. Their integrity in the face of adversity is inspiring. I sat down with director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) during CAAMFest. (If you’re interested in more about Abacus, check out Jiayang Fan’s article in The New Yorker, The Accused, from October, 2015.) (Interview lightly edited for clarity.)

—Ravi Chandra

You pointedly referenced Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, paralleling George Bailey with Abacus’ founder, Thomas Sung. Did that parallel strike you early on?

I wish I could claim inspiration for that, but really it came from the reporter in the film, the TV reporter who appears briefly, mainly around the story about the run on the bank that it happened years earlier, Ti-Hua [Chang]. He was the one that first voiced that connection, and he did it in the context of Abacus’ experience, the run on the bank much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, and it took Thomas Sung, much like it took George Bailey, to kind of calm the bank patrons down and get them to kind of relax and not worry, that everything would be fine. And that’s exactly what Thomas Sung had to do that day, years earlier with Abacus.

And I think the analogy struck him because of the bank’s sort of central place in the community. Here’s a community bank that is a real pillar within the Chinatown community much like in the movie. The Bailey Savings and Loan is a pillar. And then, of course, it’s kind of inescapable to think that Thomas Sung, he’s an older version, but he’s a very tall, handsome, lean man I think right out of the central casting. You couldn’t ask for a more elegant and handsome man to be your lead, right?

He inspires trust!

He does. A man of integrity.

You had some footage of a run on the bank and Thomas Sung comes out with a bull horn. Is that from the earlier one or…

Yes, yes. What happened was is that some employee had embezzled some money from the bank and when they…

Ten million dollars, right?

Yeah, and when it went public, you know, there was a run on the bank, and it took Thomas Sung to kind of go out, you know, and say, “Calm down, it’s gonna be fine, you know. We will survive this. You don’t need to take your money out of the bank.”

And it really was on the strength of the fact that people knew him and trusted him and his character, that he’d been long part of the community, yeah, and I love the subtext of you referencing a classic American, white American narrative with this extraordinary cross cultural story.

So once he sort of lodged that connection in our minds when we talked to him, I thought, “Well, we should do more with that not just have him reference it in an interview.” And at some point, I had this idea that it would be, I thought, a great way to open the film, but that was inspired in part by finding out that the Sungs really loved the movie and particularly Mrs. Sung, Thomas’ wife. She watches it every year, and I believe that because if you talk to her about the movie, she can tell you everything that happens in that movie, you know. And in that scene that opens the film at one point, she says near the end, she goes, “I always cry at this part.” Right?

So it was legitimate. It was not just some idea. It was actually a really kind of legitimate parallel, I think, to make between this family and that film. And as you say, I think one of the things I hoped by doing that was that it would also be a way of engaging a non-Chinese audience in the story of this family like everyone knows that movie, many people love that movie, and it was, I thought, a kind of quick and hopefully entertaining and interesting way to kind of pull you into this family.

"Abacus"

“Abacus”

Yeah, it’s a great seed that sparks all these comparisons, and yeah, it’s a case of, I guess, a life imitating art and then reflected in your art as well.

Yeah, in our story, it’s not Mr. Potter, who’s, you know, the threat to the institution. It’s the State of New York.

Right, right. Through Cyrus Vance…

He is Mr. Potter, I guess, in our version.

Okay, and I read in your press materials that you found out about this story through Mark Mitten who was friends with the Sung family and Vera Sung in particular?

Yes.

And so did he pitch this to you as a documentary subject or…

Yeah, so what happened was, Mark had worked…I have known Mark for about 10 years now. When Chicago mounted its Olympic bid for the 2016 games, he hired me to make some videos for that. That’s how I first met Mark. Then Mark, we remained friends over the years, and then he was an executive producer on Life Itself, (the Oscar-nominated documentary about movie critic Roger Ebert) my last film. He called me one day, and he said, “You know, I have this family in New York that I’m friends with, particularly, the daughter, Vera. And they’re going through this crazy situation, and you know, no one’s writing about it.” And you know, that’s how he found about it was through his friendship with them.

And he said, “You know, I think it’s this incredible story.” And so, you know, I said, “Okay, I’ll go to New York for three days to do some initial filming.” The travel is just getting under way.

So I went to New York with Mark and shot for three days near the beginning of the trial. I was hoping we would be able to get into the courtroom, and that wasn’t gonna happen. I was hoping we would get some cooperation from the prosecution. That didn’t happen until after. But the family was game, and the family was willing to have us come in, and I sort of immediately fell in love with the family. I mean I think you get that from the film. They are just a really lovely, humorous, principled, bickering bunch.

Right, right, which I’ll ask you about!

And so I had to decide after that initial shooting, is it enough to try and tell the story with the only access we really have is to the family outside of the courtroom? And I decided that that was enough. We would try to figure out how to tell the story otherwise, and let’s just follow the family through this ordeal of the trial.

What caught your interest about this?

Well, I think the initial story was, clearly, it’s an important story, and the fact that it was being so overlooked made it even more intriguing. You know, the fact that the New York Times did all of two articles on this between 2012 when the indictment came down (and the trial’s conclusion). They were there for the “chain gang” like a lot of media, and then they did not do a single article on this case until the verdict. That was three years. So the fact that the New York Times of all newspapers, the newspaper of record in its own hometown didn’t deem to cover this was really intriguing to me. Only the Chinese-American press in New York City were covering, and they were covering it religiously.

So the fact that they were the only bank indicted and the circumstances of their indictment and how they came to be targeted was all worthy enough of the film. But once I met the family, I felt like, well, I’m even more interested in the story. And so then it became, okay, well, how do we…I’ve never done a legal courtroom drama. If I was gonna pick one to do out of thin air, I probably would have picked one that’s about a murder or something…

This is about paper.

Yeah, this is what they call a paper trial. But, you know, nonetheless, we plunged in and so an early idea was let’s get a real courtroom artist to go to the trial and spend a few days and diagram and draw because I knew that once we got into post, in order to dramatize the courtroom scenes, we could then have her elaborate on those initial drawings and make something, you know, much more visual to help us tell the story. So that became our way of wanting to tell the story.

So you initiated the artwork in the film?

Yeah, there was no courtroom artist. No one hired her. We hired her because no one was covering the trial in the mainstream press, and the Chinese American press weren’t hiring courtroom illustrators to go in and so that…yes, we hired her to do it. And you know, if you think about it, you know, anytime you’ve ever seen courtroom illustrations for trial there, there are angles in our film that would never appear in a real trial. We’re behind the stand looking at the lawyer over the shoulder of the person in the stand testifying. There’s angles that would never exist because a courtroom artist sits in the gallery with other people and only have one view of the case.

But we treated it more like story-boarding our film, story-boarding the scenes, and that was a luxury that we had that we were able with our artist, Christine, to kind of then try to visually create something that was, you know, more interesting.

Absolutely. How did the fact that it was a paper trial, in fact, change your focus on how you portrayed it?

Well, it meant trying to wade through basically 7,000 pages of testimony because it was a trial that we’re in for 70 days and figure out what was the most important, you know, what stood out as a way of articulating the primary case against them and their defense of that case. And a lot of that was driven by ultimately not only what we learned from the Sungs about what went on in, you know, the trial that stuck out to them, but also when we finally did get the cooperation of Cyrus Vance and Polly Greenberg, the Head of Economic Crimes, and that juror, particularly the woman juror who felt there was real guilt here… What stood out to them then also helped us decide what to focus on because we really wanted to present the case against the Sungs, you know, as best as we could even though the film is clearly in the corner of the Sungs. I mean and I make no apologies for that.

We made a decision that we believe they were innocent, and we’re telling the story from their point of view about what’s happening to them. That’s clear, but it did not relieve us of the responsibility, and I made this very clear to the Sungs, , “Yes, we believe you, but that does not relieve us of the responsibility of presenting the case against you. And we are going to do everything in our power to articulate that case and to get people from the prosecution side to be in the film and lay out what they think you did wrong.” And we eventually prevailed, and we were able to get that.

Right, but obviously neither of you knew which way the trial was going to go.

That’s right.

So it’s a real gamble in that sense.

Yeah, I mean it’s a gamble for them.

Sure, absolutely.

Right? For us? I mean we have a film either way. Of course, we don’t want any reviews or things to make clear with the outcome of the case because that’s part of the pleasure of watching it, but so you know, we knew at some point that this film was either going to be a, you know, the ending we hoped for which was exoneration or an ending that none of us wanted. None of us, meaning the filmmakers or the Sungs, which would have been conviction. Either way, we’re gonna make the film. One way, you know, it would be a really tragic ending and the Sungs knew that we were making the film regardless. The agreement wasn’t, “Well, if you are found innocent, then we make the film.” The agreement was, “We’re doing this however this turns out.”

Right, so that brings up the question, why do you think they were interested in having the documentary made?

I think they were interested because, number one, they believe so wholeheartedly that they were in the right. They believe that they had done everything right. They never denied that there was fraud that took place in their bank. In fact, that’s why decided to root it out. That’s why they reported it. That’s why they conducted their own internal investigation that led to the dismissal of a few other employees. They were discouraged to find out about the fraud, of course, but they felt like once they did, they did the right thing.

They felt like this whole trial against them was wrongheaded and unfair, and I think they felt … not for vanity reasons because I think if it was about pure vanity, they not would have taken that chance to have a film out there that could show them to be guilty or found guilty even if they didn’t believe they were guilty.

I think they got that there was something significant and important going on here, especially for their community, given the way in which many Chinese and Chinese Americans in America are very fearful of the state and try to avoid any interactions with the state, that they felt like this was an important story to be told however it turned out. When you’re a filmmaker, you really want your subjects to want to be in the film for the right reasons, not for, “Oh, we might get a little fame out of this.”

I mean that’s an inescapably human part of the equation that people think, “Oh, well, what could happen to this film,” you know, for a number of people, but that’s an inescapable aspect of it. But if that’s the primary reason, I feel like I have intent about that, and I’m not interested in following people whose motivation is some small measure of fame they might get from being in a documentary because that is the wrong reason to be in it. And that never sticks, especially on films where I spend quite a bit of time. That’s not enough to keep someone involved.

Right, and so it sounds like they viewed it almost as a community service –

I think they did. I think they viewed it as a chance to make sure their side got heard however this goes, that they would feel like even though we were gonna represent the case against them, that they would get heard, that we would show what they were going through. And I think this is no small thing. The fact that Mark Mitten, the producer, had a 10-year-long relationship with them, gave them some comfort that, for sure, that we were gonna treat them fairly, that we weren’t coming in with some hidden agenda, that we were going to come in and we were gonna treat them fairly and that’s all they ever really asked.

Great. So probably two factors, for me, made your film absolutely fascinating. First, the Sung family itself. There’s an inspiring patriarch, a very involved matriarch, and four very strong, intelligent, passionate daughters, and I found their family dynamic just incredibly intriguing and powerful. You see them in intense gives and takes, something you rarely see onscreen with a Chinese family, in particular in a mainstream documentary, especially. Could you comment more about working with them and getting into those spaces where they’re just going at each other and being so intense?

Well, I think that’s the thing. They know who they are. They know how they are as a family in terms of the dynamic. I mean they even make fun of the fact that they are such a bickering bunch, you know. It’s not like we held a mirror up to them, and they were like, “Oh, my God. We had no idea.” They know. They know who they are. And in fact, I think they had some small trepidations that people might misread that for, you know, them not being as close as they are, and I was like, “No, no, no. It’s so clear.”

This is what closeness looks like.

This is what…exactly, you said it just, and it’s like that…and they took us on faith on that, and you know, that’s what shines through. And I just love the fact that they’re all so strong-willed as individuals and you know, when you look at mom and dad, those are two very strong-willed people, and well, it’s no surprise that they had four strong-willed daughters, you know. And so I think that that was always a real attraction to telling the story was is that they were so unguarded and so willing to share what they were going through in this ordeal.

And I think the thing that was so unexpected about that or one of the things that’s most unexpected is that I got the sense that they had a good sense of humor. I didn’t meet mom in that first shoot. The first three-day shoot, I didn’t meet her, and what a gift from the gods she is. The sense of humor and the humor within the family was an unexpected pleasure, and I think it’s one for people coming to this film because they think, “Oh, it’s about financial fraud. It’s a trial.” They don’t come in expecting to laugh as much I think as they do.

Absolutely. The other fascinating aspect was the sense that Chinatown is kind of lost in translation. There are the unusual financial practices that exist in immigrant communities, there’s the unusual courtroom culture clashes and the mistranslations and so forth, and finally, the fact that this case received so much exposure in the Chinese press, but so little in the mainstream media. Could you comment on that and how you as an outsider kind of approached this…

Yeah, I mean my knowledge of the Chinese community coming into this film was “nil” honestly. And so in order to kind of penetrate that community to the degree we did, it never ever would have happened had it not been, of course, with the Sung family, their embracing of us coming in and in particular, Mr. Sung, in that community. The high regard in which he’s held opened many doors to allow people to let us in to film in the community without any pushback at all, and that was a testament to his place in that community. He didn’t have to tell us that. We saw it. And to me, I’ve done a lot of films where I go into communities that are not mine.

I’ve done enough films in the black community that I feel like I know quite a bit more. I do know quite a bit more about the black community than I did the Chinese community, but nonetheless, every film is the same in this regard. No matter how much I think I know, I know nothing. I know very little. I always very actively approach every film as an opportunity to understand, to learn, to come in, and my goal is to always to try to tell an honest story, a layered story, an empathic story, so that even when…you know, this wasn’t the case, this family is lovely in every respect, but even when there are rough edges or things that people do that you might judge negatively, I want you as a viewer to…I want you to resist judgment and gear more towards at least understanding the choices that people make in their lives and how they come to make those choices. And the only way you could do that is to go in with a completely openness to, like, I’m here to understand myself. No matter how much I think I know, I don’t know anything.

Great. Well, I think that’s the don’t-know mind as we call it in Buddhism, but, yeah. I think it works very well because I didn’t know all these details either. I think most viewers won’t.

They don’t.

And so it’s a fascinating introduction, and I wish you so much success with this.

Thank you. Thank you so much for your support.

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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He is releasing his first full-length nonfiction book this fall. Facebuddha: Transcendence in the age of Social Networks, is a memoir and exploration of the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens. Details and a newsletter at facebuddha.co.