'The Cave' ('Nang Non'): Film Review | Busan 2019

The Cave Still 2 - BIFF - Publicxity - H 2019
Busan International Film Festival
A technically proficient but unemotional rescue drama.

Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller is first out of the gate with a chronicle of the global effort to rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018.

When innocent civilian lives are imperiled by the forces of nature, or something similarly unexpected, it grabs global headlines and mobilizes nations to save lives. That’s the premise of Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller’s The Cave, which chronicles the efforts to rescue 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach after they get trapped in a flooded cave system in Chiang Rai province. Based on real events from 2018, the pic is strong on cave-diving minutiae but thin on character (if real people can be called characters).

The Cave has been kicking around markets for the better part of a year and finally made its premiere at Busan to a largely receptive audience. Though the news of the team’s two-week ordeal gained traction on BBC and CNN — Elon Musk pitched high-tech SpaceX gear and then notoriously accused one of the rescuers of being a pedophile — Asian audiences are likely to be more welcoming for the sheer familiarity of the story. And while the world could use some positivity and a demonstration of nations and states coming together for a greater good, The Cave isn’t cinematic enough to have real impact. This is a Lifetime-style movie, and as such could have better success on cable and streaming platforms.

Writer-director Waller, who did a great job with the effective The Last Executioner (also based on a true story), is forced to work around a number of thorny elements (there’s no reference to Musk). One is a lingering white-savior tone; most of the divers who do the heavy lifting hail from Europe and North America, and the operation feels more like a U.S. military one than Thai. Fortunately, Waller never falls into the trap The Impossible did in its misguided focus on a wealthy Western tourist looking for her family after the 2004 tsunami (so they could flee on a private helicopter). He does, however, follow Clint Eastwood’s poor decision to feature real people, as themselves, in a crisis situation a la The 15:17 to Paris. There is a reason we pay actors.

Getting off to a swift start, The Cave begins with the Wild Boars and their coach wrapping up practice and heading to the Tham Luang caves on nearby Nang Non Mountain for some fun. When a downpour hits, they’re trapped in the cave system for nearly 10 days before an international team of divers is brought together — from the U.K., Ireland, Finland, Canada, China — along with hundreds of Thai locals to aid the Thai and American military on site to get them all out.

It’s unfair to fault non-actors for weak performances, but Waller lets a few too many flubs and questionable creative choices slip through the cracks. Playing himself, reporter Todd Ruiz (you can tell he’s a reporter because he has a notepad) is a more excitable narrator than journalist; a well-meaning water pump manufacturer answers his phone before tapping or swiping (though admittedly he has the film’s best moment flashing an access badge); and none of the locals feels genuine, their selflessness coming across less heroic and more cornball. There is an honest-to-god Michael Bay-style slo-mo hero shot.

That’s forgivable, but the lack of any idea as to who these kids are — none has any substantive dialogue — isn’t. For all its faults, The 33’s miners got their moments to live and breathe. The Wild Boars remain anonymous throughout The Cave, though in Waller’s defense that probably has a great deal to do with Netflix holding the to rights to their stories. Also unforgivable is the lack of dramatic tension. The potential for a story of bureaucratic bungling is sidelined, and if there was no bungling in reality, the potential for a story of bureaucratic efficiency is also sidelined. 

Tech specs are fine with what are likely budget constraints, and when the action heads into the cave and hones in on how to get 13 panicky people through hundreds of meters of murky water over the span of several hours, it sparks to life. The Cave is the first out of the gate with the story, but it probably won't become the definitive account of a galvanizing global moment.

Production company: De Warrenne Pictures
Cast: Jim Warney, Tan Xiaolong, James Edward Holley, Phillip Wilson, Eoin O’Brien, Arpa Pawilai, Nirut Sirichaya, Todd Ruiz,
Ekawat Niratvorapanya
Director-screenwriter-producer: Tom Waller
Executive producers: Jonah Greenburg, Desmond O’Neill
Director of photography: Wade Muller
Production designer: Pongnarin Jonghawklang
Costume designer: Jirada Dairoekngam
Lee Chatametikool, Asamaporn Samakphan
Music: Olivier Lliboutry
Casting: Wimonwan Boochan
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales:
Wild Bunch

In Thai, English
103 minutes