In December 2018, just a few days before Christmas, a large number of news reports detailed what has been described as intensifying religious persecution in China, especially targeted at those of Christmas faith. Despite being shot and released several months before these actions, 'The Stakeout' only serves to further highlight this worrying trend of liberty infringements, in a particularly dark set of developments during which the Chinese Communist Party strengthened its totalitarian ruling over the society. In a light and optimistic tone, the film in question attempts to capture these changes as seen through the eyes of Chinese Christians.
The story is set around Lingling, who is forced to live with her grandmother while her parents, prominent members of a Christian Church, have to live in hiding for fear of prosecution by the CCP. As detailed by police officials, the only reason for which Lingling and her grandmother are allowed to live peacefully and are not thrown into jail is using them as bait – their house is continuously watched, with the hope that either one or both of the girl’s parents will eventually show up and be caught by the CCP. They are careful until the mother finally decides to risk everything, and, after a two-year break, she ventures toward her house, for a sneak visit.
The film is successful at capturing both the seriousness of the persecutions and their impact on the lives of entire families, as well as some of the absurdities that are characteristic of Communist regimes in general. The relation between the two lookouts is comical, as even they do not fully understand the reasoning behind their actions, and one of them works well as a metaphoric symbol of authoritarian power with very little intellect behind it. As for the team of officers that are later called to the scene, one functions almost exclusively as a yes man, mirroring the actions or speech of his boss in representations filled with comic relief.
The anonymous production team successfully manages to balance the seriousness of the situation with humor and light-heartedness, which works in the sketch’s favor and likewise makes it accessible to a younger audience. What we disliked is that an overwhelming majority of the plot and the dialogues revolve around monologues worshipping God. This way, the Christian element feels a bit too intrusive, and takes away space from the plot’s further development – for instance, strengthening the complexity of the main characters or providing further context on the CCP’s other persecutions and bans might have been more rewarding. Likewise, most of the explanations come in form of monologue or dialogue, which is okay especially given the play format, but some of these details could have been handled differently, in a more subtle, indirect and visual manner.
Even with its shortcomings, 'The Stakeout' remains a lively and dynamic sketch of a rising problem in China’s ever-expanding authoritarian grip. The play format is very well designed and put into the scene, the actors all do a convincing job, and the main takeaways can easily be found, even by a public which is not exactly versed into China’s current political and social status. Perhaps due to its direction, it retains a sort of niche appeal, but even so, it remains a solid production which attempts to raise awareness on a problematic state of affairs.