By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Most of us recall the news in 2018, and there has been at least one documentary, with more to come, of the day a Thai boys’ soccer team and their coach went into a cave and didn’t come out, and the extensive rescue efforts to save them before the cave flooded for the monsoon season. Ron Howard’s latest, I dare say, Oscar-eligible movie, “Thirteen Lives,” chronicles this incident, in what he describes as “granular” detail. You will not believe what happened, but it’s all true.
Let’s talk about the immense effort the movie making process entailed, not to mention the rescue itself. In Australia, director Howard and his team re-constructed the cave system in northern Thailand, as well as the base camp nearby, the water diversion efforts that took place, all of it. And, the diving is real. There are no stunt doubles. The actors were so invested that they insisted on doing it themselves.
“It was practically an intervention,” Howard laughed when remembering the day Viggo Mortensen, who plays cave diver Rick Stanton, came up to him and said, “This is so much a part of our character and now that we understand it—talk with Rick, but I think that you’ll see that we can do it safely—please schedule it so that we do all the diving.”
You will not understand—I didn’t understand—what this really means until you see the film. You won’t understand how impactful the film is. No matter how many times anyone tells you, you won’t realize what a feat was accomplished by pure human will, ingenuity, and heart. The actors being committed to it so intensely was part and parcel of the entire phenomenon. The cave scenes are incredibly real. Stanton, who served as technical advisor, was on set every day, and verified that everything, the sounds, the emotions, the difficulties, is legit. Each actor, not just those playing the divers, got to know their real-life Thai counterparts, if at all possible.
Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, or Ploy, who plays the mother of one of the boys, and the only parent we meet formally, has spoken of how, not being a mother herself, she researched the news reels intently. She also spoke of how Howard was so open to others’ ideas, including any that would make the film more culturally appropriate.
“When [Ron]…asked me, what are the things that remind you [of being a mother]?” Ploy brought up the wrist bracelets (like prayer beads) that in the film are blessed and given to the boys and divers.
“In the northern part of Thailand, Chiang Rai, we believe in [the holy monks] a lot and the wrist bracelets. If I give a gift to someone, it means I bless you to [stay safe and it brings luck],” Ploy said during the premiere press conference in Los Angeles.
“As a director, I knew it was going to be an exciting challenge…I also knew that a large percentage of this story was going to be in Thai, and that it needed to reflect Thai culture and these characters in very nuanced, very connected, contemporary, thoughtful ways,” said Howard, at the global launch of the trailer. “This story is very, very important to Thai culture…and it’s a story they should be very proud of.”
During the time the soccer team was stuck in the caves, thousands of volunteers mobilized from around the world. The Thai government sent its Thai Navy SEALS, and army. The United States had its Air Force present. Civilians and professionals alike came together in a tremendous effort to devise how to make the rescue a success.
“I live in Thailand so when this happened, I just knew that, until the end, kids were stuck in the cave, and suddenly the kids were out; and I think that’s what most of the people in the world [know],” said Sahajak “Poo” Boonthanakit, who plays the provincial governor, Naronsak.
Here are some of the details I will share, but I won’t share all of them! The caves are part of a park that is nearby enough that the kids decided to go for an outing. The coach went along as chaperone. Normally, the monsoons don’t start until July. This was June. And they started. The kids and their coach were already far into the cave system when areas you could traverse by foot the rest of the year were flooded beyond passability, even for most experts.
The Thai SEALS only reached what is called Chamber 3, 800 meters in, and had to give up for the time being.
Enter Rick Stanton and a group of hobbyist cave divers—“Who knew there was a list?” commented the LA premiere press conference hostess—that were flown in by the Thai government as part of a sort of grab bag of whatever anybody could think of to get the boys out.
Everyone keeps saying “boys” but there was an adult there, the coach, played by James Teeradon Supapunpinyo, a popular performer in Thailand. The coach was instrumental in the boys’ survival. Mind you, they were in there for over 10 days without food. He taught them how to meditate so their fear and hunger would not overcome them. Of course, the world’s hearts went out for the boys. In the movie, you’re particularly meant to be drawn to “Chai,” whose mother is played by Tungsupakul, and is beyond adorable. You can’t not recognize that, although you’re supposed to be paying attention to the fact that Chai and his mother are “stateless”—having come from over the border in Myanmar, the same as the coach.
There’s a lot going on—there was a lot going on. Howard doesn’t shirk from any of it. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, which is saying something when you consider that we all already know the boys got out—how powerful is the art of story making! And Howard is a magic maker. The actors, too, were all in, and it shows. Your heart will pound one moment and wrench the next. You will feel when they are in those tunnels the size of a man, scraping through with their equipment—it made me nauseous, I kid you not. This is a special movie.
The moviemakers talk a lot about “teamwork” and “miracles”—but this is much more. Teamwork is such a corporate-sounding word. We’re not making a PowerPoint here, we’re saving lives. That’s what you understand that everyone at the caves took so seriously. Not everyone got along, at least not according to the movie. The Thais were suspicious of these old white guys showing up to help (even Stanton acknowledges they must have looked kind of silly), but their reputation should have preceded them. This is not teamwork as much as it’s the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity coming together to help not just those stuck but each other. And miracles—there is no miracle here. This is pure human endeavor.
“This is really the superhero movie of the year,” said Boonthanakit. “It’s a superhero movie with many, many heroes…see this movie because it will give you an idea of…when people get together to help one another, you will make life much easier. There’s a lot of love in it.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.