If you haven’t been living in a (different) cave for the last year and a half, chances are you were on the edge of your chair for more than 2 weeks last summer, following the misadventures and the rescue of 13 children trapped in the flooded underground cave complex of Tham Luang, in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The news reports about the boys, a junior football team called “Wild Boars” and their coach, were followed by the whole world with trepidation while support and assistance were arriving from everywhere. Thai-Irish director Tom Waller has now turned these 18 days into a film, “The Cave”, that had its World premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and North American premiere at the Vancouver Film Festival. The rescue was successful in the end, and the boys were all brought back to safety, however the mission costed the life to a brave ex-Thai navy seal, Saman Kunan, to whom the film is dedicated.
It is easy to imagine that such a worldwide famous event was going to be sought-after material for film-makers, producers and storytellers in general and Waller tried to secure a deal with The Ministry of Culture, that was guarding the rights of the boys. However, Netflix had already acquired the rights for a mini-series and therefore “The Cave” concentrates its focus on the rescue team and this, in reality, is what makes, it really special. The operation involved more than 10,000 people, including over 100 divers and many rescue workers and those champions that worked relentlessly and restlessly, away from the spotlight, are the real protagonists of the film.
No time is wasted in preliminaries and during the opening credits the boys are already in deep (literally) troubles. As the base camp for the rescue is set up, people everywhere feel the urge of doing something – anything – to help, and inevitably some bureaucratic barriers have to be put in place to avoid mayhem; unfortunately, they also end up slowing down some good deeds, like the the chief of a water pump manufacture who drives his turbo-jet pumps 900 km from Chang Mai only to be turned away for not having the right pass. The man’s insistence and his good heart in the end makes it happen and his water pumps play an essential role in the operation.
When the British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton find the boys alive on an raised rock in the 9th (!!) chamber of the cave, the race with time becomes pressing as the next monsoon rain is approaching and the team must find a way to move 13 frighten boys with no diving experience, and the only way is underwater! “The Cave” features four of the divers playing themselves and re-enacting the rescue: Erik Brown from Canada, Mikko Paasi from Finland, Tan Xiaolong from China and a special attention is on Irish cave-diver Jim Warny, whom the directors knows personally.
One important element in Waller’s film is also religion. The cave is imbued with spirituality as a legend goes that the beautiful princess Nang Non fell in love with a humble stable boy and became pregnant. They fled and went in the cave but the boy was caught and killed. The distressed princess committed suicide and the myth says her blood became the water that floods the cave and her body the surrounding mountains. Religious personality went to the cave during the rescue and for the whole time prayers and faith helped greatly the families and the people waiting outside, and contributed to the sense of unity and lack of barriers between all the people involved.
With its mix of scripted drama and re-enacted facts, “The Cave” feels like a documentary but with an incredibly gripping pace despite being based on a true and well-known story and having no hidden twists to show off. Camera work is very dynamic, as expected, with some skilled and compelling sequences in the cave and the highly climatic music score is key to the dramatization.
The presence of some of the real protagonists and many less-known facts like the peasants refusing compensation for the damaged crops in order to donate to the cause, reiterate the core concept of the film, that the rescue was a joined effort, an alliance of people from the most different corners of the planet, working together for a common goal in an unprecedented operation. In times where bad news are the easiest way to impact and awe, it is an exhilarating feeling to be able to discover the opposite.