“Thirteen Lives” will, for most North American audiences, be a suitable retelling of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, that, despite knowing the outcome, still pulls at your heartstrings thanks to the reliable sensitivity of director/producer Ron Howard. Yet William Nicholson’s screenplay does ultimately fail to give us a more rounded view of the story; our focus is still resolutely with the White male protagonists, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, even though the film takes great pains to note this was an effort made possible by the cooperation of many people from many different countries.
The film begins with sounds. I don’t speak Thai and yet the audience easily understands this is the chatter of boys playing soccer. They are young, happy and have a carefree exuberance that comes with youth. They are going to cycle to the Tham Luang cave together. The cinematography by Bangkok-born Sayombhu Mukdeeprom who also lensed Palme d’Or winning Thai art house film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, gives us a sense of the serenity of the lush green rice fields that surround the area. I don’t know where you live, but where I live, I would never advise just leaving your bicycles parked, unlocked at the entry way to a cave. But that gives us a sense of place. We’re in the countryside; it’s remote and relatively safe.
One of the boys, Phiraphat Somphiangchai (AKA Night) is celebrating his birthday tonight. The family is preparing for the celebration, but he and his friends never arrive. The friends and family soon find their bicycles and understand their predicament. The news travels around the world.
When the news gets to Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) in the UK, we see them at home. Volanthen has a son, Matthew. (Blake McFarlane). We underestand that he is no longer together with Matthew’s mother, Annabel (Helen Cassidy). This kind of personal touch allows to understand the solitary existence of such men like Stanton and Volanthen. In Volanthen’s case, he has a son about the age of the boys in the cave. Subtitles and unobtrusive maps help us keep track of the time and the distance within the caves as the divers seek to get the kids out.
The film also makes clear that the last people out and the people to swam support were the Thai Seal.
What we don’t see is the homes of:
- The 37-year-old former Royal Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunal, or meet his wife
- Thai Navy SEAL Beirut Pakbara, who died from a blood infection the following year.
- Thai Captain Anand Surawan who was facing a situation that he didn’t have the expertise to handle.
- Thanet Natisri of Marion, Florida
- Assistant coach and former monk Ekkaphon Kanthawong
At the very least, the attention to the British divers would have been balanced with more attention to Saman Kunal (portrayed by Sukollawat Kanarot) and Anand Surawan (portrayed Thiraphat Sajakul) because Kunal’s death seemed to be related to the different considerations for cave diving as opposed to open sea rescue for which the SEAL divers are trained. The documentary, “The Rescue,” includes Anand Surawan’s wife (Waleeporn Gunan). Having some quick expository scenes for Saman Kunal and Anand Surawan at home would given us a deeper understanding or emotional link in parallel to the foreign cave divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen.
The survival of the boys was credited to Ekkaphon Kanthawong (portrayed by Teeradon “James” Supapunpinyo) and his training as a monk. Some background here might give us some insight into the local beliefs that are alluded to throughout the film. Supapunpinyo took up meditation to better understand Kanthawong. The inclusion of some backstory of Ekkaphon Kanthawong would begin to tip the focus toward the Thai.
As someone who has some experience in bilingual situations and code-switching, I think there are two individuals who might have been used for insight. Thanet Natisri (portrayed in the film by Nophand Boonyai) might have the most interesting point of view. In an interview with the Carbondale Times, he said when he arrived at the cave, six days after the cave flooded, trapping the boys and their coach, “he quickly realized that the resources and expertise of the Thai rescue team were inadequate.” but he also said, “They are a prideful people, but they needed help, especially in the dive operation, from the UK team and the international team.” Natisri speaks both Thai and English. Natisri thought that a cave expert from Utah, Josh Morris (Kai Pantano) who was then living in Chiang Mai and a Thai Army colonel, Singhanat Losuya, were particularly influential. Neither man is given prominence here, and Losuya doesn’t appear to be portrayed at all.
- ‘I use pride to repress my sadness’: Widow of Thai navy SEAL who died during the cave rescue honors his sacrifice
At some point, there was a shift between the initial disrespect for the cave divers, and the Thai Navy SEAL divers must have learned skills. The experience reportedly changed the training of the SEAL divers. This is something that would have been interesting to explore and a common enough theme in cinema. That’s an aspect of not just East-meets-West, but open water divers meeting cave divers who not only have a unique skillset, but, as portrayed the documentary, “The Rescue,’ a peculiar personality that drives them to engage in a relatively solitary pastime. The tension between a group who is trained to work as a unit versus solitary men who work best alone or in pairs is something that isn’t explored in this telling and would have brought more psychological dramatic depth.
This is a solid story, but the cinematic storytelling still favors the side of the two White men who found the boys alive, but those two were only part of the story of an international team that came together and made sacrifices. While there is something sadness about a man who spends to much time away from his son and a son who is away, on a rescue mission when his father dies–both of which are noted in this film, there’s also sadness for the Thai widow and Thai families of the two Thai men who died, making the ultimate sacrifice.
“Thirteen Lives” had its premiere on 29 July 2022 in the US (limited release). The film has been available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 5 August 2022 in the US and elsewhere.