Thirteen Lives

Even though the heroic story of the Thai Cave Rescue is well-known, it is powerfully told in the hands of director Ron Howard.

The miraculous 2018 rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach from the Tham Luang Caves was always destined to become a screen drama.

Even through the world knows the outcome, it ticked all the boxes for drama, jeopardy and exhilaration. The question is whether Hollywood would ruin it with something too popcorn.

But in the hands of revered director Ron Howard, Thirteen Lives is both emotional and respectful (a 2019 film The Cave by by Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller beat him to the premiere punch).

The 2.5hr feature was filmed both in Chaing Rai province in Thailand and on the Gold Coast -I suspect mostly for tank scenes and interiors. To the eye it looks very Thai-authentic with landscape, signage, extras, clothing, props and vehicles.

It was an excitable day when the Wild Boars and coach ‘Eak’ entered the caves below the Doi Nang Non mountain, said to resemble a “sleeping princess.” But while locals believed the princess had been angered heavy rains began to fall ahead of monsoon season, trapping the team in its 10km system.

Local Governor Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit), who was on his final weeks in the position, ordered Thai Navy SEALs to swing into action but the heavy rains and dangers of cave diving led local Brit expat Veron Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) to recommend experience divers John Volanthen (Viggo Mortensen) and Rick Stanton (Colin Farrell) fly from London to assist. But they encounter a cultural divide and some red tape over who is leading the rescue -and the Thais don’t want the deaths of foreigners on their hands.

If it takes a village to mount a rescue, it took a province in Chiang Rai, with locals trying to divert ground water from seeping into the cave system, even if it meant farmers would see their crops destroyed…. “For the boys.”

The elation at discovering the boys alive was only half the fight.

“Those boys are never coming out,” says John Volanthen.

But a secret plan waould boldly be hatched.

The story of Australian anaesthetist Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) sedating the boys with ketamine is well documented -but seeing it played out as drama is tense nonetheless. There was no precedent for this real world experiment…. too much could kill the boys, too little could see them awaken underwater and panic. The underwater trek was also over 6 hours.

The rescue also entailed the death of Navy SEAL Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot) -a hero for his ultimate sacrifice.

If the rescue drama is not conflict enough, Ron Howard highlights the power struggles within Thai circles and the frustrations of the British divers, as well as the desperation of Thai parents. Restaged scenes with the world’s media look very authentic, including how they were shielded from seeing the boys as they emerged one by one from the cave system.

But this is also a movie and the jeopardy increases in the third act thanks to heavier rains and a race against the clock to get the last boys and divers out before perishing.

There are signficant aspects of the story including the statelessness of several boys and Coach Eak, and a personal tragedy for Harris.

If there’s anything missing, perhaps it’s the reality that Harris and others could have faced years in the Thai legal system if something went wrong.

Instead they became heroes.

Thirteen Lives is powerful and authentic, including with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and shows what can be achieved when nations -17- in total, work together. It also reaches screens before a Netflix miniseries Thai Cave Rescue with includes several Aussie stars.

And most pleasingly, the story hasn’t been exploited by Hollywood after all.

Thirteen Lives Friday August 5 on Prime Video.

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