Serenay Sarikaya and Burak Deniz in "Shahmaran".

1 Basilisk Supernatural Romance, Please — “Shahmaran”

I’m not a big fan of supernatural romances. I don’t have anything against the idea, it’s just that they’re usually paired with plots where a protagonist’s town or the world itself needs saving. In terms of storytelling, the romance always gets priority over helping countless people, so I spend most of my time waiting impatiently for the leads to get over themselves and do what’s more important. When they inevitably weigh a bazillion people’s lives against whether they get to sleep together – and can’t figure out which is more important – I inevitably think neither one’s worth a coffee date.

Ah, new Turkish series “Shahmaran” asks, but what if saving the world is dependent on the romance happening in the first place, all prophecy-like? What if there are different camps of basilisk-people who have opposite interpretations of the mythology? The hemming and hawing about whether the leads should get together is really about whether that’ll save the world, curse the world, or do nothing. Now we’ve got a struggle between free will and mutually opposed views of determinism.

“Shahmaran” uses a Persian myth of the same name as the framework for a tale about a human woman and a half-snake/half-human man falling for each other. Serenay Sarikaya plays Shahsu, a postgrad psychology student who attends a lecture in rural Adana. She uses the opportunity to track down her grandfather, who abandoned her mother and left her heartbroken her entire life. Shahsu’s introduction is stunningly strong – she immediately becomes a favorite character and someone with whom it’s easy to identify.

She is complex – strong as Shahsu is, she also comes across as privileged and rude to locals, and her sense of others’ medical privacy can be a bit fungible. It is easy to explain why she values confrontation – everywhere she goes, most men and many women turn their heads. The visual impact is similar to the treatment of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs”, where every man’s eyes would track her through the room and people she passed in every location turned to look her up and down. When Shahsu first gets to the college she’ll agree to teach at, there’s a long take of her walking through the halls. Pay attention to the background cast and every male eye turns to watch her at length.

“Shahmaran” can be superb at building a sense of lurking dread. It’s slow but it doesn’t feel like a slow-burn. In a slow-burn, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re anticipating a sharp realization. You gird yourself to react when that moment happens. The atmosphere in “Shahmaran” instead borrows from horror on this front – when you feel like something’s lurking, you’re already reacting, not anticipating doing so.

It also gets the strangeness I like to see of a character stepping into mythology. Flashbacks, dream states, and portents serve to dislodge both Shahsu and the viewer from a sense of stability. Ingredients from multiple other genres get folded in, from horror to magical realism to erotic. It never goes overboard with these, but infuses them in effective ways. Early on, the series is both deliberate and lean.

The technical elements of “Shahmaran” impress the most. The set design, lighting and cinematography, and musical score all create something engrossing but unsettling. Cinematically, “Shahmaran” can stretch from the precise art horror qualities of Tarsem Singh to natural infusions of magical realism akin to a Claudia Llosa film. Those don’t exactly neighbor in the landscape of filmmaking, but director Umur Turagay finds a way to make them feel close.

Shahsu and Burak Deniz’s Maran try to resist falling for each other. He knows the prophecy that a basilisk savior is meant to arise and bring peace so long as a basilisk and human fall in love every generation. The only problem is that women tend to die in this prophecy – and if that’s the prophecy’s cost, is it really worth it? It’s the inverse of the the issue I always have with supernatural romances. He’s not weighing his love against saving others. He’s weighing a prophecy of saving others vs. a reality of sacrificing others that it requires, all against what role his free will should play. It’s the trolley problem, which isn’t exactly new to the genre but usually doesn’t get treated as the real focus like it is here.

The easiest solution would be to leave Shahsu alone, but he can’t do that either when a faction of basilisks is hunting her. They think humans are harmful (I think they’re on to something), and that it would be better for the natural world – such as basilisks – to take over. The usefulness of Maran leaving Shahsu alone so that the prophecy doesn’t risk her life goes downhill when leaving her alone means others will threaten her life.

Place a very good cast in the midst of this all and you’ve got something incredibly watchable. It’s a romance, so it’s also worth noting this is the best-looking cast I’ve seen in a while. Deniz looks and acts like he’s lobbying hard to take over “The Witcher” (there’s still time); Mert Ramazan Demir’s Cihan is immature and pushy, but he makes an argument for a love triangle just by stepping on-screen; and even Shahsu’s grandfather Davut is a silver fox. The series finds an opportunity to put Sarikaya in her underwear once every episode, and Maran has three sisters who embody naive, blasé, and playfully wise attitudes, respectively, and each get a fashion line’s worth of costume design to match. “Shahmaran” knows why people watch, but it doesn’t feel constricted by this. Writer Pinar Bulut has a clear understanding of how to utilize these elements; she often finds smart turns away from expectation that drive important points about agency home.

For the first two episodes, “Shahmaran” has almost every element go right, but for all its skillfully built-up horror and romance, it sometimes misfires when capitalizing on them. Its moments of action can feel slightly stagy, and the romance between Shahsu and Maran can fall a bit flat. This last is hard to get right because there’s a balance between them resisting their feelings, giving into them, and what role trust plays into that. Maran can’t tell her the prophecy because it would risk exposing his people who have only been able to survive by hiding, and Shahsu can’t trust Maran because she knows he’s hiding the truth when supernatural things happen.

CGI is used rarely, and can vary in quality – mostly in the effects feeling on a separate layer from the characters in-scene. I don’t really mind, but some might.

The translation seems to miss some detail or context from time to time. Translation is an entire cinematic art unto itself. I opted for subtitles. Sometimes a decision is made to keep them tight and specific, which can risk making things a little inaccessible for viewers in the target language. In the case of “Shahmaran”, it feels like the opposite approach is taken. A broader approach makes it very easy to keep up, but some details can feel sanded down. In particular, the wordplay that defines a developing romance can occasionally come across as generalized in a way that doesn’t match how the actors are playing it. (Of course, not speaking Turkish I can’t say for sure.)

Ultimately, the opening episodes were enough to pull me in. The visual texture “Shahmaran” creates is gorgeous in its ambience, but in some of the subsequent episodes it narrows its range of locations. The series relies on its varied visual textures and colorations to define the atmosphere and keep things interesting. In the episodes that take place in fewer locations, the slow pace can feel much more apparent.

This metaphor may only speak to some, but in a way “Shahmaran” reminds me of a certain type of very deliberate adventure game, such as Jane Jensen’s “Gabriel Knight” or “Gray Matter”, or Wadjet Eye’s more recent work like the “Blackwell” series. A complex character shows up, gets embroiled in something supernatural, you plug away at some puzzles – not because the plot or puzzles or even the supernatural elements are all that great, but rather because you want to spend time enjoying the texture and feeling of a place. You want to know what happens to the characters because they’re appealing but face tough choices, and you want to see how the mystery plays out because it changes your understanding of the texture of the place you’re enjoying so much.

In the same way gameplay is secondary in these games, the plot is secondary to why I’m watching “Shahmaran”. Humans and basilisks co-existing after the basilisk savior sets better ground rules sounds good. So does basilisks taking over and chastising humans for treating the planet like crap. So does the prophecy being bunk and everyone continuing to have free will. All those outcomes have benefits, but come at a hefty cost. For once, the people in the middle of it all have a real argument for not knowing what to believe and what to do. I want to see how these appealing characters face complex choices, and how their choices change the texture of the place I’m enjoying so much.

If you’re looking for anything all that fast-paced or realistic, “Shahmaran” won’t match. If you want to be pulled in slowly by intrigue and thick atmosphere, or you just want a supernatural romance that isn’t played out, “Shahmaran” does impress.

By the way, if you’re not watching Turkish series, you’re missing out. Period drama “The Club” was one of the best series of 2021, and last year’s “Midnight at the Pera Palace” stands as my favorite light mystery. “Shahmaran” is fun to watch. I wouldn’t put it at the level of those two, but it exemplifies two genres the Turkish TV industry is particularly good at – fantasy and romance. A lot of what’s being created there – or at least the portion that makes it stateside – has a real streak of resistance and feminism to it that can speak to our culture just as capably.

You can watch “Shahmaran” on Netflix.

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