How ‘Thirteen Lives’ Represents the Humanity of Thailand and its People

When westerners think about Thailand, there are many thoughts that come to mind: the food, Muay Thai, or martial artist Tony Jaa. There are also many harmful stereotypes of the Thai people that Hollywood gets very wrong. Movies like The Beach or The Hangover II that showcase Thai people as dirty, thuggish gangsters and the country as an untrustworthy place. With Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, based on true events from the 2018 Thai Cave Rescue, Thais are finally being seen as they truly are – people who love their country and its people. 

“[Thirteen Lives] is a very big opportunity for us, the team, and the Thai cast [to share] the Thai people and this Thai story,” said Teeradon ‘James’ Supapunpinyo, who plays Coach Ek in the film. “This is Thai culture. Thai beliefs. Today, Thailand has a chance [to tell their story] and go all around the world. All [these] people are going to know this event that happened in Thailand [and see] people [coming] together. It’s about collaboration.”

In the film, 13 Thais (12 boys and their football coach) are trapped in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand during the early monsoon season. After numerous efforts from the Thai Navy SEALS, people from all over the world came together in attempts to rescue the boys – including veteran cave divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), John Volanthen (Colin Farrell, Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) and Chris Jewell (Tom Bareman). Although the film does focus on the divers’ journey to rescue the boys, the film gave the Thai people who were involved the opportunities to share their stories and sacrifices.

(L to R) Thira ‘Aum’ Chutikul as Commander Kiet, Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanaku as Dr Karn, Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, Colin Farrell as John Volanthen and Viggo Mortenson as Rick Stanton in THIRTEEN LIVES, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Not many know what the Thai people sacrificed to save the boys in the caves. The farmers in the small villages, who survive off their crops, allowed for water to be diverted into their harvest in order for the boys to have a fighting chance in the caves. That scene hit Sahajak “Poo” Boonthanakit, who plays the governor of the province, Narongsak Osatanakorn. 

“[The audience who have watched the film] are very much into [the story] when the village woman just [tells the government] to [divert the water to their harvest],” Boonthanakit begins to choke up as he tells the story. “We did it about ten times and every time she said [“do it”], I cried. People [asked] ‘how do you do it?’ I just said listen to her. They’re willing to give up everything. I hope that people see that that is Thailand. When something like this happens, we all get together. I want to believe that it happens in other countries too, but, in this case, this thing that started off as a catastrophe, everything ended up in a wonderful, beautiful fairytale story-like ending.”

Unfortunately, lives were claimed during the rescue. Former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan volunteered to partake in the rescue and tragically lost his life during the mission. Sukollawat “Weir” Kanarot, who played the fallen SEAL, wanted audiences to see how much Kunan and many Thai people truly loved each other and the sacrifice was to save the boys. 

“Thai people want to help each other,” said Kanarot. “Thailand is a great place to be and people can see Thai people love each other very much. Doesn’t matter what area you are. They don’t need to know each other. We help each other.”

The film does take part in an area that is less explored in films — Chiang Rai province, which is the northern part of Thailand. Pattrakorn “Ploy” Tungsupakul, who plays Buahom, one of the mothers of the children, is from one of the northern provinces of Thailand and was happy to see that particular culture represented. 

“In the northern part of Thailand, we have our own culture,” Tungsupakul said. “We have our own spiritual beliefs. So, in the movie, you see the red bracelets that Buahom gave to the divers and asked the divers to bring the bracelets to the boys in the caves. We believe in this spiritual belief.” 

Sukollawat ‘Weir’ Kanarot (left) as Saman and Thiraphat ‘Tui’ Sajakul (right) as Capt. Arnot Sureewong in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mortensen was satisfied with the storytelling of the film, which was mostly in Thai and had Thai actors playing the real Thai people in the story.

“If this movie was made 20 or 30 years ago by another kind of director, all the Thai characters would be speaking English and it would mainly be about the westerners and some heroic thing,” Mortensen said during an earlier press conference. “This is not that.”

Boonthanakit also emphasized that everyone who partook in the rescue are heroes. The film avoids the white savior trope, which could have happened if the film only focused on the white divers. Instead, Howard ensured every Thai involved in the rescue were also seen as the heroes.

“[Narongsak] mentioned that everyone’s a hero,” said Boonthanakit. “The coach is a hero for keeping [the kids] calm. The governor could have quit, but he didn’t. He stayed on. The divers, the foreigners, and the volunteers who left their home to come to Thailand. Saman, the hero who retired but came to help and lost his life. The list goes on. I want people to see from this movie the beauty of it all and take Thailand as an example that if you’re in need, we will help you.”

Thirteen Lives is out in limited theaters and premieres on August 5 on Prime Video.