Jhe six-part Netflix limited series Thai Cave Rescue doesn’t have it easy. How do you make the 18-day ordeal of Tham Luang Nang Non engrossing when the story of a dozen teenage-to-teen football players and their coach trapped deep within the flooded cave system has been told over and over again?
Never mind the wall-to-wall media coverage of the incident and grueling rescue operation just four years ago. Three films have already covered this ground, including the documentary The Rescue by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Thirteen Lives by Ron Howard.
Thai Cave Rescue – with its fun basic title that seems designed for the best SEO results – does pretty well, despite the redundancies. Just be sure to watch it in the native Thai audio track with subtitles instead of the clunky English dub the Netflix platform automatically reverts to.
The series, created by Michael Russell Gunn and Dana Ledoux Miller, isn’t quite as sleek and captivating as Howard’s film starring Hollywood heavyweights like Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton as divers who took out the Cave Wild Boars football team. Thai Cave Rescue is the most exhaustive, melodramatic and sometimes brutal narrative that contains a crucial ingredient that the films do not have: the perspective of the football team.
Netflix and SK Global have secured the exclusive rights to the story of the Wild Boars football team as part of an agreement reached by their country’s government. We get to know the players, their families, and the emotional baggage they took with them deep into this cave. And the story is told with a sensitivity to local nuances thanks to Thai director Baz Poonpiriya and Thai-American filmmaker Kevin Tancharoen, both executive producers alongside Jon M Chu (the Taiwanese-American director behind Crazy Rich Asians).
Chu memorably tweeted the day after the actual rescue that he refuses to let hollywood whitewash this story, a warning shot to other films that would ultimately favor tales of the British and Australian divers whose plan to anesthetize and smuggle the boys through the treacherous underwater passages miraculously worked.
“There is a beautiful story [about] human beings saving other human beings,” Chu wrote. “So whoever thinks [about] the story is better approached correctly [and] respectfully.”
Thai Cave Rescue immediately stands out in a brief prologue that celebrates the community on the bridge gathered to reach the boys on the last day of the rescue. This includes Thai Navy Seals, US military support, foreign engineers and divers, local politicians, farmers, park rangers, volunteers, and even those who simply send prayers from around the world.
The series then rewinds to introduce each child, starting with 11-year-old Titan (Pratya “Tiger” Patong) and his trainer Eak (Papangkorn “Beam” Lerkchaleampote, who died earlier this year at 25). Titan slept at Eak’s house, seeking refuge with his warring parents. Eak, an orphan raised in a Buddhist monastery, has become a stable guide for the younger ones. He preaches early on about Chosen Families, telegraphing his role as a father figure for the next 18 days (and beyond for children who have hostile environments at home).
The intimacy with these characters naturally makes the series more touching, even if some performances are a little stuffy and raw. The previous episodes are quite difficult, especially when the writers are desperate for levity in a story that often does not leave such leeway. Small gags are thrown in heavy or tense moments where they land with a thump.
There is more confidence in later episodes. The performances start to click, and the playful camaraderie between the young football team and those waiting outside to pull them off feels like a fitting remedy to their dire situation.
Veteran singer-turned-actor Thaneth Warakulnukroh stars in the cast. He finds reserves of empathy and notes of grace in his performance as Governor Narongsak, the man tasked with overseeing the rescue, responding to parents, politicians, and the media while handling an impossible situation.
In a later episode, Narongsak presents the parents of the soccer team with the only options he has: send supplies to the boys to hopefully survive months in the cave until the end. monsoon season or try immediate underwater rescue. He advises opting for rescue, explaining that both scenarios will likely end in death, but one is fast and the other is slow. The seriousness of every decision he makes — and the strength it takes to even consider them — really hit home with this exchange.
The most uplifting episode is dedicated to Navy Seal Saman Gunan, known as Ja Sam (Suppakorn “Tok” Kitsuwan), and his wife Maew (Tusrin “Yes” Punpae). Ja Sam died after losing consciousness while carrying oxygen tanks through Tham Luang for rescue.
Throughout the episode, he regularly checks on Maew. They have warm and bittersweet conversations in which he shares his hope that his volunteer stay in Tham Luang will be complete so that he can return home and join her for the cycling marathon they both trained for. A match between Maew’s lighthouse as she navigates Bangkok’s bike lanes at night and Ja Sam’s flashlight as he makes his final journey through Tham Luang is one of the on-screen edits most deeply felt in recent memory. It’s also a fitting tribute to the people whose story isn’t celebrated enough in all the movies about this rescue.