Written by Jessie Tu
Elaine Wei’s debut documentary, The Way Home: The Call of the Azangiljan is a tender storytelling of Liao Li-Hua, also known as Dremedreman, the daughter of a tribal leader caught between the fraught relationships between tribal groups in Taiwan’s indigenous communities.
The single mother of three spent her young adulthood living among the contemporary Taipei crowd, making ends meet in a nine to five and separating herself from her family’s roots. Now, at middle-age, she has returned to her village of Tjana’asiya to assume the role of tribal leader after her father’s passing.
“She is whole-heartedly prepared to accept her ancestral spirits,” a relative declares, draping silver-laced traditional Tjuwaqau robes over our heroine as she begins to understand the pressures of the role.
The role of tribal leader is a large undertaking. She must attend weddings, funerals, family ceremonies and celebrations with money and well-wishes. She must endure the physically agonising ritual of tattooing both her hands with traditional symbols to indicate her devotion and loyalty to the role.
Early in the film, we watch Dremedreman pressing a cloth over her mouth, suppressing her cries as a tattooist carves ink diligently into her flesh. The colour palate is nocturnal and bleak, as the new tribal leader is surrounded by a large gathering of family and friends.
“I try to laugh through the hardship,” she remarks deftly.
For most of the documentary, we watch the quotidian activities of the women of the village — making foods, selling foods, delivering food to weddings, and making jewellery. Much of her role as tribal leader requires Dremedreman to be taught the traditional processes of exercising her power.
But conflict arises when she is asked to perform her duty at a cousin’s wedding without knowing precisely how things are done. It is a scene of public humiliation not uncommon in the contemporary political world that is faced by many female leaders.
A furiously loyal and devoted mother to her three teenage-children, we hear from her two sons and daughter too — they’re finding it hard to make a life for themselves in the contemporary cities of Taiwan; as the rest of the country modernises, where can they find their place in society?
The eldest son, Tjivuluwan, is a charismatic, blonde-haired inquisitor. He returns to help his mother with a student event which she has agreed to cater for. “She doesn’t like to rely on others,” he smiles at the camera as he sits at a table, cutting traditional rice-rolls into coin-shaped pieces.
His face bears the tortured tension which we see also in his mother. It is the expression of someone trying to find their way in the world — not certain what tomorrow brings for them, but earnestly chipping away at their physical integrity.
In the end, we watch Dremedreman arrive at the Azangilijan, the house where the tribal chief traditionally lived. An ancestral spirit ceremony inaugurates her as a leader taking on the role of connecting with past spirits.
Wei’s storytelling focuses on the full humanity of a spirited, loving mother. It is ultimately a testament of the brutal and uncompromising force of female love, an acknowledgement and showcase of the most undervalued, and overlooked humans that keep this world spinning.