Miracles, as the world acknowledges, have already been performed. Tears have been shed and a tragedy – the death of a Thai Navy Seal – has been mourned.
Also, we have already seen a thousand images, still and moving, reported live from the scene with commentators of all stripes chipping in during those two tense weeks in July 2019. So, what can cinema do that reality – that life – already hasn't?
This is a rhetorical question, because Nang Non (The Cave) arrived in cinemas last week. The director is Tom Waller, a Thai filmmaker of Irish descent who had the quick wit and resourcefulness to pull this one off before other film projects about the same incident reportedly in the making.
Fifteen months after the Wild Boars were rescued by an international coalition of cave-diving experts, their stories have lost some of the freshness, but the film does its best within its limitations to relive the rollercoaster moments and to capture all the keywords: despair, hope, mud, rain, darkness, mishaps, volunteerism, heroism, joy, medevac and the final hoorah.
For all its unpredictable acting style and narrative haste, The Cave makes up with ground-level honesty and especially with the third act inside the cave, which puts us up close to the experience of the divers in their perilous mission.
A sort-of dramatic reportage, the film doesn't hang its narrative on any one character. Instead, it shifts its focus among several participants in the rescue and creates what might be called the Greatest Hits of the Tham Luang Saga. This is a mixed-bag of the headline moments and key players (and yet the film has some surprises in store).
Barely five minutes into the story, the boys are trapped and their disappearance is all over the news. In the next scene, we see a US military commander order his men (perhaps too much like a Roland Emmerich film) to mobilise for a rescue operation. Then the soldiers and divers arrive, not long after the tribal shaman who believes he can communicate with the spirit of the guardian goddess of Nang Non mountain.
The film hops from one build-up to another, from one character to another, and these threads are strung together by our own familiarity with the actual incident and by Todd Ruiz, then a reporter of Khaosod English, playing himself, who appears regularly to "report" on the movement and progress of the operation to the camera. Sometimes he even functions as an emotional cue, signalling us what's coming up and if our heart should swell or drop.
In fact, The Cave features many real-life characters from the operation as themselves – and while it means the persuasiveness varies, this is surprisingly what gives the film a folksy, no-fuss texture. The most prominent of them is Headman Tun from Phetchaburi who, in the real operation, brought turbojet water pumps to the cave, got cynically turned down by the bureaucracy, drove back and returned to the scene after a plea from the boys' families and finally became one of the heroes.
Headman Tun's presence in the film also leads to a small but, to me, vital scene that shows why humanity should rise above bureaucracy – it's also a scene where Waller smuggles in a wry critique of the way things are run and locked doors are opened in a place like Thailand. Later in the film, the appearance of the prime minister (God help us it's just an actor playing him) confirms that point; I will nominate it as the most hilarious scene in Thai cinema this year.
Waller – who directed The Last Executioner and Mindfulness And Murder, two Thai films with enough "exotic appeal" for the international market – made The Cave principally after he got in touch with Jim Warny, an Irish diver who took part in the rescue. In the film, Warny plays himself and anchors its final third (along with other real divers). You can tell he's camera-shy, but as he arrives at the cave and plunges into the muddy water, his confidence grows.
In the final dive, Warny goes in with a sachet of ketamine syringes, the drug that will put the boys to sleep, and although we already know the happy ending of this crazy story, we stick with him, submerged or surfacing, until Warny carries Coach Ekapong Jantawong out to safety, the last man saved, with barely a scratch.
Cramming all the little details to create this greatest hits is the simplest way to tell this story. It feels thin and depthless at times, but in his broad sketch Waller makes sure to give us the heroic (the divers and rescuers) and the tragic (the death of Saman Kunan), the sentimental (the villagers whose fields are flooded turn down the compensation) and the triumphant (humanity over bureaucracy).
The use of real and made up caves to stand in for Tham Luang works better than I first imagined, and when the film can't recreate certain scenes, it cuts to a character watching real-life TV report of those scenes.
Our need to watch real-life events dressed up as cinema is a curious one, from The Crown to The Cave and everything in between. That's a subject of another debate. For now, I still don't know if we need a feature film about the Tham Luang operation, but the one we have before us justifies its existence quite sufficiently.
– Kong Rithdee
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