Four years ago, news of a Thai soccer team called the Wild Boars stuck in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand made its way around the world. It took 18 days for the 12 boys and their coach to be saved, an operation broadcast on TV and witnessed online.
For me, a Thai citizen born and raised in Bangkok, the news specifically made its way to Los Angeles, where I was working at a film sales company. As more people took notice of the story, I found more attention, and therefore questions, diverted towards me. Do you know the soccer team? What about the boys? Where is Chiang Rai? I didn’t know Thailand had caves?
Even before the last of the boys were rescued, there was already buzz about film and TV adaptations, with various directors and creatives throwing their names in the mix. The conversations I was privy to very quickly became less about how the boys and their coach were doing and more about how the story could “resonate with a larger audience.”
It was discombobulating. On the one hand, it felt heartening that the world was paying attention and that help for the rescue was collaborative on a global scale. I wasn’t home in Bangkok to witness the fear my friends and family were experiencing as they were gripped by the news, but I could feel the resonant power of humanity and faith all the way in LA. On the other hand, it felt strange that barely a week after the boys were rescued, projects to adapt the wholesome and inspirational rescue mission were already announced.
In Thai, the word “nadaarn” means audacious. It has a positive connotation when used to describe people who stand up for themselves or speak truth to power. Describing someone as nadaarn becomes negative when their actions feel slightly disrespectful or almost impolite. In a way, I felt all these projects about the rescue were all slightly nadaarn—and only time would tell whether it was positive or negative.
Around four major projects have now been released. This week, Netflix drops yet another. Thai Cave Rescue is a six-part limited series that unfolds the “untold perspectives of the boys at the center of the rescue.” Unlike other adaptations that focus more on the international rescuers, this one places the boys front and center—finally grounding the global story to the Thai point of view, directed by Thai filmmakers Kevin Tancharoen and Nattawut Poonpiriya, and starring mostly Thai actors. It was also shot in the very cave where it happened.
The first episode begins in media res of the incident. It’s July 10, 2018 at the base of the Nang Non Mountains. The Tham Luang Cave is flooded after heavy rainfall. News reporters from around the world rattle off in different languages about the 12 boys and their Coach Eak (a moving portrayal by the late Papakorn “Beam” Lerkchaleampote) who are stuck inside. We see Navy SEALs, government officials, and volunteers hard at work in the pouring rain. Then, we cut to a close up of one of the boys in the cave. He looks terrified as he takes in the waves of water in front of him. He whimpers softly that he is scared. “Titan,” the diver calls to the boy, “it’s time to go.” Therein ends the exposition as we flashback to eight hours before the team gets trapped.
We already know how this story ends—the boys and their coach are saved and a diver dies in his aid to rescue them. Previous adaptations focus on the heroic acts displayed by the divers and the international rescue team as they brave the unrelenting floods of water and embark on a fight against nature. But this series flips the script and keeps the boys and the coach as the focal point.
Right from the beginning, we’re shown a snapshot of each of the boys’ lives at home, before they head for a soccer game. Though dramatized for the series, scenes were shot at the homes of the real-life boys. One has parents who never stop quarreling, another lives with his aunt and urges her to come watch his soccer match. One of them lives with his grandmother who wants to send him to an uncle about 118 miles away, and another lives with his mother who doesn’t have proper documentation to stay in Thailand.
The retelling of the harrowing rescue works because it’s anchored in these backstories, shining whenever we see the team’s camaraderie. We root for the main characters because we get to know them very well. The officials, volunteers, and everyone who plays a part in the rescue are also fully-developed characters in their own right.
We see the boys fight, cry, laugh, and go through a gamut of emotions as they lean on one another, dealing with the possibility that they may not survive. We see their families try their best to lean on their faith that threatens to waver with each setback.
Thai Cave Rescue doesn’t bother with trying to “globalize” this story, unlike the initial ideas I heard in 2018.
Take a scene from the second episode. It has been nine days and two hours since the team has been stuck in the cave. The Wild Boars are extremely weak, and laying down as though succumbing to rest. We hear murmurs of voices but they don’t sound Thai. One of the boys, Adul, turns to his friend, Biw, to ask if he hears anything. Biw weakly tells him in Thai: “If it’s a ghost, just ignore it.” Adul tells him the voices are coming from the water, and that they don’t sound Thai. Biw then rationalizes that the voices must be “international ghosts.”
This very simply encapsulates a point the series is trying to make: The boy obviously considers the divers to be foreign or “farangs,” as Biw calls them, inviting the audience to flip the Hollywood gaze. This time, it’s the divers who are the “foreign” ones.
Every slang, inside joke, and pop culture reference is rooted in such specificity that it reminded me of my own upbringing in Thailand. The world that is depicted feels real. Even something as simple as using Thai for most of the dialogue left a huge impact. The series goes beyond humanizing the Thai people because it actually centers them. To Thai people watching away from home, like me, it provides a sense of familiarity and warm nostalgia.
“The team really captured the spirits of the boys and the community surrounding them,” Emily Teera, a writer-director born and raised in Bangkok but now based in Los Angeles, told VICE. “The authenticity is so resonant that it makes me homesick, but that’s when I knew they did it right.”
The underwater scenes can be tough to watch. The show takes great pains to depict the visual journey as accurately and dramatically as possible, including a scene where divers sedate the boys before bringing them back to the mouth of the cave. But this just adds to the relief you feel when the boys are saved. You see hoards of people outside, rejoicing. People watching from TV scream in happiness. Authorities breathe a sigh of relief. At the very end, we see the boys back on the soccer field, and a montage of the actors beside the real-life boys they portrayed. We are reminded that they’re just kids who wanted to play.
“Only when we champion voices behind the screen that look like the ones on screen can we hope to elevate the narratives around historically underrepresented communities in Hollywood.”
The show is a testament that when you allow underrepresented filmmakers and creatives to helm their own stories, it only becomes all the more compelling. Instead of a stereotypically exoticized Southeast Asia, we get a deeply emotional and moving journey.
“Only when we champion voices behind the screen that look like the ones on screen can we hope to elevate the narratives around historically underrepresented communities in Hollywood,” Teera, the Thai filmmaker, said.
Some moments in the series borderline on cliche and overdrawn, as expected in dramatized accounts of historical moments. But they’re also characteristic of the cinematic language of dramas in the region, adding authenticity and familiarity to a show meant for both a local and global audience.
Thai Cave Rescue is “nadaam,” in the best sense of the word. It highlights the boys and their emotional journey with such gumption that we feel every win, loss, joy, and tragedy as though they were our own.
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