Thai Cave Rescue debuts on Netflix on Sept. 22, 2022.
It has been four years since the successful rescue of 13 people – 12 kids and their soccer coach – from the Thai caves. Within those four years, there have been two documentaries and two films based on the operations that took place to save them. Though many of the portrayals were met with critical acclaim, the perspectives from those adaptations were heavily focused on the foreign cave divers who rescued the boys rather than the boys themselves.
Netflix’s Thai Cave Rescue, the only production to obtain the rights from the Wild Boars soccer team, gives a well-rounded story of the boys and their coach’s 18-day survival in the flooded caves, while also providing a detailed account of the operation at hand, led by Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Thaneth Warakulnukroh). Throughout the six episodes, the backstories of Coach Ek (Papangkorn “Beam” Lerkchaleampote) and the 12 boys – Mark (Thapanot Huttaprasuk), Tee (Songpon Kantawong), Titan (Pratya Patong), Adul (Thanawut Chetuku), Biw (Teeraphat Somkaew ), Phong (Chakkapat Srisat), Mix (Watcharaphol Poungsawan), Dom (Thanaphong Kanthawong), Tle (Apisit Sangjan), Note (Rataphumi Nakisatit), Nick (Apisit Yukam), and Night (Thanapat Phungpumkaew) – are given, allowing a closer connection to the lives of those that were trapped.
It’s truly hard to imagine how 12 adolescent boys with no food and clean water survived for 10 days in a cave with no signs of hope, but they persevered and are finally given their moment to tell their side of the story. The relationships and interactions between Ek, the boys, and the Thai Navy SEALs are the highlights of the series. Despite their grim circumstances, there are moments of levity that serve as a reminder that these characters are still just kids. On their first night together, for example, Thai Navy SEAL Baitoey (Winai Wiengyanhkul), dressed in the foil blanket, performs a funny dance number to provide some laughs as they eat their first meal in 10 days.
As for the boys, the majority of the cast is made up of Northern Thai actors, which felt authentic as their accents reflected the area they were representing. Despite the series marking some of their debut roles, the child actors portray their counterparts well. Huttaprasuk stands out as Mark, the smallest of the team, who bravely volunteers to be the first to dive out, but is, dejectedly, told he must wait until they can find him a mask that fits. He sadly watches each of his teammates being taken out, leaving him behind. Huttaprasuk is heartbreaking as the last child rescued – one with the highest risk of fatality due to his size and poor health di lui – in which he forbearing utters, “Let’s find out our fate” before being taken out of the cave.
Lerkchaleampote, who sadly passed away back in March, is moving in his final role as Coach Ek, the real hero who kept those boys alive and their spirits up. He led them in daily meditation to calm their minds and stomachs in order to survive. Yet, throughout their time in the caves, he blamed himself for being in this situation and carried immense guilt that slowly ate away at his mental health di lui. It’s a devastating circumstance that allows from some poignant acting from Lerkchaleampote, including one emotional scene in which Ek breaks down and is comforted by TIe.
The story does give credit to the rescuers and engineers who took part in the operation, naming several more foreign divers and military personnel who participated in the rescue, including those from the US military. The series also dedicates an entire episode to former Navy SEAL Saman Kunan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), who tragically died during the mission. In the fourth episode, Kunan’s background di lui, particularly his relationship di lui with his loving wife “Meow,” is explored, giving us even more empathy over his loss di lui. Previous versions of Kunan centered on his death di lui rather than showing the life he sacrificed to save these boys. The episode is heartbreaking yet necessary to honor this fallen hero.
The foreign divers, particularly Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris (Rodger Corser), are given recognition for their part in the mission as well. It also shows us more of Harry’s conflictions regarding the entire plan and his fear of losing any of the boys. The wonderful thing about the story highlighting the heroic divers is that it never felt like it was leaning into the lazy “White savior” trope. Instead, the entire operation, as portrayed in Thai Cave Rescue, feels like it was a joint effort between the Thai people and the foreigners who wanted to help.
Although the series does feel authentic, several changes were made due to the lack of rights from others involved in the rescue. Real-life water engineer Thanet Natisri, who orchestrated the pumping of water out of the caves, was given the gender-bend treatment. Although it’s understandable creatively to add more women to the story, as many women were involved in the actual rescue, the problem isn’t the character’s sex. The character, water engineer Kelly (Urassaya “Yaya” Sperbund), is still Thai American, but she speaks in extremely broken Thai, conducting business mainly in English. It was rather distracting to watch the actress – who herself is a native speaker of Thailand, playing a character who in real life is fluent in both Thai and English – play what seems to be a parody of a Thai American poorly trying to connect to her Thai roots of her. It was difficult to take her seriously, even at the most impassioned scenes. It seemed like the writers were trying to connect with the Thai diaspora by adding a “relatable” Thai American to feel part of the rescue. Instead, it just felt unnecessary to the story.
On a similar note, the inconsistent use of English was also distracting. Though it’s understandable for English to be used when there were foreigners around, there were moments where it just didn’t make sense. In the second episode, Narongsak speaks with Royal Thai Navy Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew (Tanapol Chuksrida) over their plans to send Navy SEALs through the cave. Though there was a foreigner present, it still doesn’t really make sense, contextually, why the conversation between the two of them was spoken entirely in English. Despite the actors’ strong fluency in English, the acting just felt more exaggerated and over-dramaticized than it likely would have if they were to perform it in their native tongue.
That said, Thai Cave Rescue is still the most detailed portrayal of the Tham Luang Cave Rescue. Completely shot in Thailand with the cast being all Thai (with the exception of the foreigners), the series makes an admirable effort to be authentic and accurate to the story. At the end of the final episode, there are comparisons between the actors and the real-life Wild Boars, in which some of the kids looked like they could be related to their counterparts. The story also accurately portrays what it means to be stateless in Thailand, with Coach Ek having to go back and forth between borders. Although, I do wish they gave an update to the three boys and Ek, who were given full Thai citizenship after their rescue, because it is still an important topic that should be discussed. Though we do know the ending results in a happy one, it’s how the story is told that is most satisfying. Thai Cave Rescue fares much better when it sticks to keeping it a Thai story.
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