Three New Versions of the ‘Thai Cave Rescue’

During the summer of 2018, the world witnessed what could have been a horrific tragedy, but the drama in Thailand turned into a bittersweet triumph. Almost immediately, filmmakers began formulating their plans. Last year, Academy Award-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin provided an excellent look at the people behind the rescue. This year, three films–two fictionalized versions and one documentary–take on the tale of 12 soccer players and their 25-year-old assistant coach trapped in a cave in picturesque but waterlogged Thailand. If you’re really keen on this incident, you can watch them all, but not all of them are worth watching.

Facts

The 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand on 23 June 2018. They were part of the junior association Wild Boars soccer team and their assistant coach Ekkaphon Chanthawong was with them. Monsoon season started early, and the 13 were trapped by the rising waters.

The head coach Nopparat Kanthawong became alerted to the missing boys when he checked his phone and found calls from worried parents. Nopparat Kanthawong contacted one of the team members, Songpon Kanthawong, who had gone home, but knew that the other boys had gone to explore the Tham Luang caves. At the caves, Nopparat Kanthawong found the bicycles and bags. He alerted the authorities.

British cave diver Vern Unsworth was based in Chiang Rai and had actually planned to explore the caves the next day (24 June 2018). He advised the Thai government officials to contact the British Cave Rescue Council.

25 June 2018: Thai Navy SEAL divers arrived explored the cave, but found the water too murky.

27 June 2018: BCRC cave divers arrived with specialized equipment.

28 June 2018: US Air Force 320th Special Tactics Squadron, the 31st Rescue Squadron and 353rd Special Operations Group arrive.

29 June 2018: Australian Federal Police team of Specialist Response Group divers arrive.

2 July 2018: The 13 are found by BCRC divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen.

3 July 2018: Seven Thai Navy SEAL divers joined the 13, bringing food and medicine.

5 July 2018: Former Thai Navy diver Saman Kunal loses consciousness.

6 July 2018: After failed CPR attempts, Kunal is pronounced dead

8 July 2018: Thirteen specialist divers (including four British and two Australian divers), five Thai Navy SEALs enter the cave for extraction. First set of boys rescued, taking about 3 hours.

9 July 2018: Four more boys are brought out.

10 July 2018: Last four boys and the assistant coach are rescued. Rescue time reduced to two hours. The three Thai Navy SEALs and the Army doctor were the last to dive out on the final day.

December 2019: Thai Navy SEAL Beirut Pakbara dies from a blood infection contracted during the rescue.

Film and Television

2018: “Against the Elements: Tham Luang Cave Rescue” is a documentary produced by Channel News Asia in Singapore.

2018: “Thai Cave Rescue” is an episode (Season 45, Episode 14)  in the science television series “Nova.”

2019: “The Cave” is a feature film written and directed by Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller and features some of the cave divers as themselves. This has been re-edited and re-released this year as “Cave Rescue.”

2021: “The Rescue” is a National Geographic documentary that uses body-cam footage recorded by the rescue divers and was directed by Oscar-winning wife and husband team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. This film made its world premiere at the 48th Telluride Film Festival (2 September 2021) and was released in the US on 8 October 2021. The film won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards for Best Directors, Best Score and Best Cinematography. It was one of the Top Documentaries chosen by the National Board of Review.  “The Rescue” is currently streaming on Disney+. My full review is here.

2022: “Thirteen Lives” might have been a satisfactory film two decades ago and perhaps even now for the majority of the US audience, however, despite efforts to give voice to the non-White people involved, the viewpoint is still tipped toward White Anglo men, even as we know what two Thai divers died. Director Ron Howard expertly gives us the sense of danger, frustration and emotional fatigue even though we know the outcome. It doesn’t help that Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play the two lead members of the British cave divers who found the 13. My full review is here.

Thai Cave Rescue

Limited series with six episodes which begins with the caveat: “This series is inspired by true events; however, certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”

Next we begin with the rescue mission already underway on 10 July 2018. “The eyes of the world are on Northern Thailand today as efforts to extract the 12 boys and their coach begin in earnest.” Other reporters’ voices are heard and scenes from around the world show the extent of international interest.

  • Episode 1: The Legend of Tham Luang The Wild Boars soccer team meet for practice with plans to explore a cave afterwards. Little to they know that their lives are about to change forever.
  • Episode 2: To Not Offend the Gods Coach Ek and the boys realize they’re trapped in the cave due to rising water levels. The clock is ticking as rescue efforts begin to ramp up.  
  • Episode 3: The Princess’ Chalice A hydraulic engineer warns of the drastically rising waters. Meanwhile, rescuers deliver food supplies and family letters to the hopeful boys.
  • Episode 4: Lucky Baht The rescue team works out the best way to safely retrieve the boys from the cave–but an unfortunate tragedy strikes during the operation.
  • Episode 5: The Parable of Kisa Gotami Governor Narongsak makes an effort to get consent from the boys’ families to proceed with a new contentious rescue plan. 
  • Episode 6: Moo Pa Against all odds, the day has come for the rescue divers to finally extract the boys from the cave–and the world is watching in anticipation. 

This series might have come out both too soon and too late. The documentary, “The Rescue,” is already out. The Ron Howard project, “Thirteen Lives,”  is also out and being heavily promoted by Amazon Prime Video. The Oscar-winning Howard establishes a feeling of sweaty, muddy desperation. Things are not clear nor clean and the men experience both culture and  egos clashes.

While Netflix’s “Thai Cave Rescue” is the only dramatic production that was given access to the Wild Boars soccer teams members and even uses boys who knew the actual members who were trapped, the writing is weak and the pacing under directors Kevin Tancharoen (“Agents of SHIELD” and “The Flash”) and Baz Poonpiriya (“Bad Genius” and “One for the Road”) is too sluggish to suggest the desperation of the times.

Visually, what I did like about the casting was that the two actors playing Richard “Rick” Stanton (Christopher Stollery) and John Volanthen (Nick Farnell) look more like their real counterparts than Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell who portray the men in the Ron Howard project “Thirteen Lives.” Standing in comparison to the Thai Navy Seals and even the US military, this visually gives the audience an idea of why the men inspired more doubt than hope.

However, overall, the acting is often flat and some of the exchanges lack immediacy. This conversation between two clean and fresh-faced rescuers seem totally devoid of urgency:

Kelly: We can divert all the water to the stream here, running to our right and Southwest down to Myanmar. That’s far from Luang Cave.then we stand a chance of controlling the water table inside the cave.

Pim: Do you really think it’s that simple? I’ve seen mountain springs disappear in one place only to reappear heaters away the next winter. Do you really think you can control nature with sandbags?

Kelly: I’ve seen sandbags hold back hurricane flooding in the states. It works.

Kelly and Pim are not real characters. It is likely that Pim is replacing a Thai American man. Both of these characters and I suspect the prominent placement of an African American Navy military personnel is an attempt at adding diversity where there is already plenty.

After watching this limited series, I rewatched the documentary, “The Rescue,” because of questions of diversity casting. I wanted to see if there were any prominent African American participants as well as scrutinizing the US military photos that were available. I didn’t find any, but I did find evidence of the presence of women, most notably the US military photographer (Maj. Jessica Tait).

I find the gender-swapping for diversity disingenuous. Do women really need to be represented in places where they weren’t in favor of places where they were?

When Felicity Jones got to play the fictional Amelia Wren, that took away the achievement of Henry Coxwell who was the person who actually made the flight with James Glassier (played by Eddie Redmayne) in “Aeronauts.”  Is is really inspiring for young girls to heroize  a fictional woman who is replacing a real man? Isn’t this just as misguided as “The Dig” where photographers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff (who documented the excavation at Sutton Hoo) were replaced by a fictional male photographer.

A further issue is: Do films feel the need to add a prominent African American or Black voice (e.g. Eddie Murphy in the animated feature “Mulan”) where they might have been none because the issue of diversity has been so firmly cemented as meaning the presence of African Americans?

Aside from these sticky issues of diversity, Netflix’s limited series isn’t a good drama, even if it gets points for allowing Asians and Asian Americans to control the narrative. The narrative lacks good pacing and good acting and the kind of production values that would really allow us to feel the atmosphere.

The National Geographic documentary, “The Rescue,” does this as well and better and also had Asian American directors guiding the project.

The Trapped 13:  How We Survived the Thai Cave

While Netflix may have missed with its “Thai Cave Rescue,” its documentary “The Trapped 13: How We Survived the Thai Cave” is a welcome follow up to “The Rescue.” Director Pailin Wedel points the camera (cinematography by Thanakrit Duangmaneeporn and Wade Muller) at the 13 and against a studio black backdrop questions them about their experiences. Their sincerity breaks the language barrier (English subtitles) and emphasizes the importance of good leadership, a bit of meditation, faith and hope.

Unlike “Thirteen Lives,” but like “The Rescue” and “Thai Cave Rescue,” “The Trapped 13” also remembers that a man died during the rescue and that man had a wife.  The widow of the first of two Thai divers who died is interviewed and some of the survivors are asked about the weight they bear as a result of this man’s ultimate sacrifice.

Wedel’s endeavor isn’t all talking heads. The interviews are bracketed by re-enactments of the rescue and these are a much better performances than in the Netflix limited series. Emotionally satisfying and requiring much less time than the tedious limited series, this documentary tells you all you need to know about the experience of the boys as well as an expected followup epilogue at the end. The National Geographic documentary, “The Rescue,” focused on the people who worked to rescue the boys. Now “The Trapped 13” gives us the other side of the story.

Unlike documentaries that you might see in the theaters, this Netflix documentary has subtitles in Spanish, Thai, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese (as well as English) and audio in German, Spanish, French and Thai. The most ambitious, the Netflix limited series, Thai Cave Rescue, is the least successful. Yet Netflix’s documentary, “The Trapped 13,” is a must-see for people interested in this event. This documentary shows how Buddhist meditation skills can improve one’s chances of survival and who knows when you’ll be facing some tough circumstances.

At this point in time, the market may be oversaturated with films about the Thai cave rescue, but certainly in 2028, I’d be interested in seeing where these boys and the assistant coach are and even how the Thai Navy SEAL program and even the odd hobby of cave diving were affected by this international effort.

“The Rescue” is currently streaming on Disney+.

Thirteen Lives,” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

“Thai Cave Rescue” is currently streaming on Netflix.

“The Trapped 13:  How We Survived the Thai Cave”  is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

 

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