“The real heroes don’t come out and tell you that they are heroes,” Kevin Tancharoen, director of Netflix’s “Thai Cave Rescue,” tells Mochi Mag over Zoom.
Wearing his signature snapback, there’s a wall of noirish moodboards spanning behind him. After a string of sweltering fall days in Los Angeles, the Thai American director shares that the moodboards are for his latest project, “The Brothers Sun,” a dark action-comedy show starring Michelle Yeoh. The show, in his words, is “a dream, but hectic.”
However, his words about heroes refers to the new limited series “Thai Cave Rescue,” which — as the straightforward title suggests — depicts the two-week rescue mission of the trapped boys’ soccer team in the Tham Luang cave in 2018.
How The “Wild Boars” Have Moved On
Four years ago, Tancharoen first heard the news of the boys while he was playing with his niece at his sister’s (actress, producer, and writer Maurissa Tancharoen) home: a group of twelve boys who were part of the “Wild Boars” soccer team and their 25-year-old assistant coach had gotten stuck in a cave in northern Thailand when sudden rainfall flooded the cave system. Tancharoen attributes how the rescue caught the attention of the world stage to the “human level” of the situation: “Everyone really got hit […] if you’re a parent, if you have kids, if you are a kid and have friends like [the boys], there was a way to relate to it regardless of cultural background.”
When Tancharoen joined the television project in 2021, he got to meet these young soccer players. He used some of their real homes and belongings as props in production, aiming for the most faithful retelling of events. Despite a lack of fluent Thai, COVID-19 restrictions and visas, torrential rain, bugs, mud, and treks into the same daunting cave system, he found joy and growth within the challenging production. Tancharoen reveals, “If those kids can get through that, I can work. I can work in the heat. I can work in the rain. That’s a luxury in comparison to what the kids actually had to deal with.”
In a time where the mention of trauma can have the lightning rod effect of a buzzword, Tancharoen notes that the Wilds Boars have moved on with their lives, continuing to play soccer in their close-knit community. “They don’t wear the trauma as a badge or anything like that. They don’t overindulge. They just kind of go on with their lives, like ‘Yeah that’s something that happened to me and I learned from it, but I’m not [that event].’ It’s not their identity inside.” Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong, the assistant coach who received both criticism and praise for his involvement in the event, is still a part of their lives.
A Production So Authentic It Becomes “Meta”
Tancharoen’s six-part limited series remains the only production to have been granted first-person access to the “Wild Boars,” ensuring an authenticity other Hollywood productions may not have. In fact, many of the actors playing the boys come from the same village and are friends with the players off-screen, according to Tancharoen. Taking a “Slumdog Millionaire” approach, “Thai Cave Rescue” cast kids who were not yet professional actors to play some of the twelve soccer players.
While directing the cast in scenes in Thai, the Los Angeles native focused on the nonverbal signals of their body language. Tancharoen wears hearing aids, but he often took off his director’s set to utilize his partial deafness. “A lot of my source of information comes from watching nuances, things in their eyes, the way they sit, those unspoken things. If I could understand the scene by just looking at their face, then I think it works very well — because of my hearing loss.”
With a comic geek’s dream resume, Tancharoen holds multiple credits with DC and Marvel properties such as “The Flash” and “Titans” to Disney’s widely anticipated “The Book of Boba Fett.” As a contrast to those fictional superheroes, Tancharoen found himself working with the Royal Thai Navy SEALS and the British and Australian divers who saved the boys. Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian anesthesiologist who sedated the boys during the hours-long rescue, participated in the production by playing his own actor’s body double in underwater scenes.
Tancharoen reveals that Harris also aided production in other ways, such as moving sandbags on set! Harris “just [has] the desire to help and work with people. So to have him there and have a look on the set and go ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what that looked like’ was invaluable.”
Along with superhero credits, Tancharoen’s early background in music videos aided in choreographing the thirteen cast members of the soccer team inside the tight set of the recreated interiors of the cave. Employing 3D LiDAR scan technology, the painstaking recreation by advanced lasers took up to three weeks.
How Working Across Cultures Can Change Lives
Thai co-director, Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya, and Tancharoen agreed to showcase the “human spirit” of the rescue, rather than solely emphasize the “insane technicalities of the rescue.” Tancharoen explains, “Nobody had really told this story from the perspective of the Thai community, the parents, the governor and the children inside of the cave. So we clicked on that tremendously.”
Coming from a Thai American perspective, Tancharoen observed cultural factors that also played a role in the harrowing rescue. “Thai culture had a big part of what saved the boys in the cave, right? They were already a team. They love each other like brothers; they just naturally have a lot that they deal with on an everyday basis, as none of them are rich kids.” The pre-teens had taken their shoes off before they went into the caves because they didn’t want to ruin their brand new shoes, and they reportedly expected to ride their bikes back home after being rescued.
As Tancharoen shares details of the production experience, it becomes clear how impactful making the series was on the 38-year-old director. Life lessons manifested from direct interviews and research with the boys and divers. “They didn’t panic. And the reason why they survived was because they didn’t [panic].” Tancharoen bears in mind that the Buddhist background of Coach Eke, who had spent ten years as a monk, contributed to the meditations that helped the trapped group survive. “The biggest lesson for everyone to witness no matter what language you speak, is that if you work together, miracles can actually be accomplished.”
Citing the number of national identities involved in both the rescue and the production, from British to Thai American to Thai, Tancharoen asserts, “Working together is just a universal lesson that must be said because we seem to always forget it. It’s a perfect example of how [people from] cultures [that are] so different can work together.”
The importance of community is stressed in “The Brothers Sun,” Tancharoen’s next project as well, which he describes as a “hyperreality” in the world of Taipei gangsters, but “at its core, a family story.” Tancharoen’s body of work continues to reinforce his cheeky Instagram bio, which aptly reads, “Director of people with weird/dangerous hobbies.”
Discover the complete story of the inspirational rescue mission in Thai Cave Rescue, on Netflix streaming on September 22. Follow Kevin Tancharoen, director of “people with weird/dangerous hobbies” at @ktanch.
Last modified: October 2, 2022