Tony Coolidge was born in Taipei, Taiwan, to an American soldier and a Taiwanese mother. At the age of 27, Tony travels back to Taiwan to reunite with his relatives after losing his mother to cancer. While in his home village of Wulai, Tony discovers he is a descendant of an indigenous tribe called the Atayal—one of many indigenous Taiwanese cultures in danger of vanishing.
As part of his “new mission” to preserve the indigenous cultures of Taiwan, Tony creates an indigenous heritage festival featuring tribes from Southeast Asia, Africa, and the United States. As a result of his inspirational efforts with the festival, Tony was invited to “return home to gain a deeper connection” to his roots.
During his awe-inspiring encounters with various tribal groups throughout Taiwan, Tony discovers more unique aspects of his own tribe. He also gains a broader understanding of some of the other tribes that make up the beautiful culture he comes to know as “his family.”
Shu-min Hsu Coolidge was born and raised in Tainan, Taiwan, in a predominantly Han Chinese society. Growing up, Shu-min was never encouraged to bond with indigenous Taiwanese people. She represents the Han majority of Taiwan, and her loving marriage with Tony is an example of the healing of differences between the indigenous cultures of Taiwan and the Han culture.
Having to take care of her ailing father, Shu-min is forced to leave her family behind in the United States and return to Taiwan. Four months later, she would welcome her husband Tony, and aid him on his journey.
Throughout the film, Shu-min faces adversity. Despite her personal hardships, Shu-min has to summon the courage to help Tony make his way through the diverse landscapes of her native land. Maybe even learning something for herself along the way.
Steven Coolidge is the brother of Tony Coolidge, and the youngest of four children. Like Tony, Steve shared a close relationship with his mother and was devastated by the circumstances of her death.
Knowing that Steve had previously expressed interest in learning about their mother’s indigenous heritage, Tony offers to bring him along to Taiwan. Steve reluctantly accepts, knowing his expectations in going differ greatly from Tony’s.
Steve’s interesting anecdotes and analyses throughout the film provide their own distinct point of view into the culture he discovers alongside his brother.
Sakai I-wan, I-pai Lodan, and Sigi Uming have survived four distinct cultural changes and generations of struggle. Originating from the Truku tribe, and having lived through most of the 20th century, these “great-grandmothers” share their memories with the inquisitive American—some funny and inspirational, while others deeply saddening. Their reflections provide some of the most eye-opening and heart-warming moments of Tony’s journey.
Alice Takewatan is a well-respected teacher and activist. She is a member of the Bunun, one of many tribes that make up Taiwan’s indigenous population. Alice travels the world, sharing the indigenous cultures of Taiwan through music, dance and art—which are among the few components of traditional tribal life that remain largely untainted by modernization.
Through fate, Alice meets Tony at his cultural festival in the United States. Inspired by Tony’s dedication to his culture, she invites Tony to revisit Taiwan, and uses her connections to provide him with a more authentic experience of Taiwanese tribal life.
In the mountainous village of Wufeng, Taiwan, Su-Chen Wang earns a humble living as a designer of indigenous clothing. Incorporating authentic weaving patterns from the Atayal tribe, Su-Chen’s designs have earned her a reputation as a conservator of indigenous culture.
Su-Chen brings Tony face-to-face with Ya-ki, one of the oldest elders of the Atayal. Over a hundred years old and bearing the intricate facial tattoos native to her culture, Ya-ki represents Tony’s first encounter with a living relic of his tribe. Ya-ki’s stories open a new window into the history and beauty of the indigenous people of Taiwan.
Tien Guei-Shih is a photographer who devotes his life to his tribe. His photographs document the facial tattoo culture that was once an essential part of life for the Atayal. Once considered fierce headhunters, the Atayal used facial tattoos as a way to distinguish themselves from other tribes in Taiwan. Tien’s photography has been appreciated and recognized worldwide.
Pleased to learn of the cultural preservation efforts his younger “tribal brother,” Tien is moved to introduce Tony to the last remaining tattooed elders residing in the coastal Taiwanese region of Hualien.