“I was at the cave, then I watched the movie”


    Veena Thoopkrajae, a reporter who covered the rescue operation at the Nang Non cave, is ambivalent about the first cinematic portrayal of the world-famous incident

    I did not enjoy watching “The Cave” (“Nang Non”) but then again, I did not enjoy being there in real life either. How can you “enjoy” an event when 13 young lives are at stake and time is running out fast?

    I was one of the reporters who was at Tham Luang cave in June 2018. On Friday, almost 18 months later, I was one of movie-goers who went to a Ladkrabang theatre to watch Tom Waller’s cinematic portrayal of the world-famous incident, which kept viewers all over the world glued to their screens.

    Waller’s movie “The Cave” is certainly not going to achieve blockbuster status even though it is the first feature that sheds lights on the story of the Tham Luang incident in Chiang Rai. It has also sparked a fair amount of controversy.  The Cave is like “a slap in the face of Thai bureaucracy,” many have commented on social media.

    The film, like many things in this country, has somewhat become politicized. Those who are opposed to the previous and present governments like some scenes, in particular the ones that show a lack of competence in the Thai operations. On the other hand, the chief of the cave rescue, Narongsak Osatanakorn, is not pleased with the Thai-Irish director’s movie. As the chief of operations, some scenes do seem to pass judgement on him to a greater or lesser degree. “There were thousands of (well-intentioned) people in this rescue operation and they were left out,” he said after a meeting with the director at the movie’s charity screening.

    His frustration is understandable. The real event was all about collective heroism but the film is unable to incorporate all the heroes and heroines and only brings specific heroes into the limelight. That is the main reason why Narongsak questioned the film’s portrayal of itself as “based on a true story”.

    Waller told Narongsak that he faced obstacles such as having no access to information while making the film. On comments that he failed to capture all the “good side” of the cave story, the filmmaker said that there would be many other films to show other elements of the incident.

    So, perhaps we have to separate fact from fiction by ourselves and remember that “The Cave” is a feature film, not a documentary.

    Waller started the film shortly after the rescue mission was completed. Being the first is certainly a commercial advantage, although it comes with many challenges and limitations.

    The story of the 12 boys and their football coach has been reported extensively by the Thai and international media. Raw information seems to be abundant. Nevertheless, a good movie script requires more than that. A major obstacle is that the director had no access to the boys nor the coach as they are tied into an exclusive contract with Netflix.

    The media wanted to talk to many real-life characters and many failed to do so. Key figures including Dr. Richard Harris and key divers did not want to give any interviews. Narongsak gave so many interviews that he ended up having to tell journalists he had said enough about the cave operation and it was time to move on and talk about other things.

    The problem with the cave story, as I’ve experienced myself when researching “The Great Cave Rescue” book by Australian journalist James Massola, was that it was not easy to gather accurate information. For example, such details as giving a sedative to the kids and the ultimate order for the kids to be brought out of the cave in a high-risk manner were not initially made known to the public

    I dare say that up to this point – a year and a half after the operation — no book or film could tell a complete and accurate picture of this extraordinary and epic real-life drama.

    To be fair to Waller, he needed heroes in his film. Fortunately, he found “Phuyai Tan” (Nopadol Niyomka) who helped the rescue with his super-powerful water pumping, and cave diver Jim Warney who happened to live not too far from Waller. He built the story around the two lead characters that would allow him to add some depth and drama.

    Phuyai Tan and Warney played themselves in the film, as did Chinese diver Tan Xiaolong. Having these “real-life” participants turning “reel-life” in “The Cave” helped the filmmaker recheck some facts which made the movie sets look more accurate.

    Accuracy is one thing, and “The Cave” as a film also needs conflicts, heroes and villains. The incompetency or bureaucratic red tape featured in small parts admittedly makes “The Cave” feel more like a movie. In real life, such a huge operation unavoidably involves hiccups here and there.  At the end of the day, the most important thing is the safe rescue of the young men.

    So, we should judge “The Cave” as it is, a film.  Most of the movies that proclaim “based on true story” have inaccurate details to some degree. Whether it gives Thai government a bad name or not shouldn’t matter much. The mission was completed with a remarkable ending, and that should be the bottom-line. Nothing should outshine the boys’ survival and the collective spirit from around the world.

    Wallen’s portrayal of volunteering did move me. I had tears in my eyes revisiting the real-life volunteering spirit, the sacrifices and the hope. “The Cave” is not entertaining, but it certainly delivers some messages about volunteering.

    I didn’t enjoy the movie much, but why should I or how can I? The real story is so dramatic and unprecedented that no movie can beat what actually happened.

    By: Veena Thoopkrajae                                                                                          Special thanks to ThailandToday.co