Thai cave rescue film opens in Bangkok

Jamie Fullerton in Bangkok

The first feature film about the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue of 12 boys and their football coach had its Bangkok premiere on Monday, with rescuers who played themselves in the movie walking the red carpet.

Thai-Irish director Tom Waller’s The Cave tells the story of the summer 2018 mission in northern Thailand, which saw around 7,000 people help efforts to retrieve the Wild Boars football team members from a flooded cave system.

The rescue, which gripped much of the world with blanket media coverage, has become a valuable brand. Netflix signed the rights to tell the boys’ stories in a film or TV series, and Universal is making a Tham Luang film. Released in Thailand 16 months after the rescue was completed on 10 July 2018, The Cave, an independent film, is the first big-screen project out of the traps.

Related: 'It's brought a lot of hope': Thai cave reopens after football team rescue

There has been little sign of Thai public unease at commodification of the rescue, during which retired Thai navy seal Saman Kunan died. “This movie gives us more detail of exactly what happened,” said Monchai Suesatayasilp, a 45-year-old businessman, as he perused a film poster for The Cave in Bangkok’s CentralWorld mall. “I want to know what happened, and just following the news is different from this film.”

On 1 November members of the public were allowed inside a section of the Tham Luang cave complex for the first time since the rescue. Formerly a little-known rural beauty spot, the area has since been visited by more than a million tourists. Shacks selling T-shirts featuring cartoon versions of the boys and their coach line the road to the cave.

Chanin Vibulrungruang, one of the boys rescued from the Tham Luang cave in Thailand. Photograph: Adam Warner for OIS/IOC/EPA

Demand for an authentic Tham Luang experience has also been high in Bangkok. In the run-up to The Cave’s release people queued in malls to put on virtual reality headsets and watch the rescue from the perspective of Ekapol Chanthawong, the football coach and last of the 13 to be rescued.

The VR experience, filmed on the set of The Cave, is intense. It simulates being strapped to a stretcher by cave divers then hauled through water and rocky passages. Late in the cycle the visual perspective flips, giving a close-up head shot of the coach, who was tranquillised with ketamine for the journey.

“I’ve had about a dozen people who took off the headset and had tears,” said Al Caudullo, who created the VR project. He suggested that the tears were induced by pride and happiness rather than fear.

He added: “I don’t think you’ll see a backlash [against Tham Luang media projects] for quite some time. It’s going to ride high on the spirit of nationalism surrounding it. Even when the Netflix one comes out, it’s just going to keep the same spirit going.”

Four divers involved in the rescue – Erik Brown, Mikko Paasi, Jim Warny and Tan Xiaolong – played themselves in The Cave. On Monday night Warny, whose has a particularly prominent role in the film, was mobbed by selfie-seeking fans after the film screening.

Caudullo was nearby, manning the VR headsets. “People see it as a victory story,” he said.