By Michele Calderon and Kathy Jones Toth
Dedicated with love and admiration to the amazing Kuzey Tekinoglu, and to Kivanç Tatlitug, who brought him to life.
Authors’ note: this review contains extensive spoilers —
Imagine…as a North American viewer, staying engaged with a series featuring 80 episodes. A series in the Turkish language with English subtitles. Each episode over two hours long…the average length of a feature film. Riding along with the characters on an emotional roller coaster through an action filled story, a complex family drama, and countless hours of angst interspersed with a few romantic moments.
Imagine …rooting for the unlikely hero, Kuzey Tekinoglu as he endures four years of prison starting at the age of 18, is attacked and stabbed in the stomach resulting in a horrific injury; after his release puts his life on the line in boxing matches to earn quick money, while trying to build a new life in a dysfunctional family, and struggling to forget an “impossible love”. Despite these inauspicious beginnings our hero succeeds through innate smarts, sheer determination, hard work, and most of all integrity.
Imagine …a tale of two brothers: Güney the eldest: a hard-working young man he works part-time in his father’s bakery, and as a caddie at a country club, while finishing up his university degree. He is almost ready to take his place as the family’s success story – a position he’s been groomed for by his mother. …Kuzey the youngest, who when we first meet him is being released from prison. Although quiet and humble, inside Kuzey is seething with bitterness and anger. He’s been away 4 years and in that time he sees what his brother has been able to achieve. Kuzey has little education, is jobless, and has been rejected from the military, leaving him few options to rebuild his life.
The brothers’ lives are forever changed one fateful night, when their car driven by Güney, hits and kills a young man. Spurred on by his mother, and in a show of extraordinary sacrifice Kuzey confesses to the crime, to preserve his brother’s chance at entering university. In doing so Kuzey has unwittingly places a heavy burden of debt on his brother.
Imagine… an impossible love story:
Two brothers who love the same young woman. Her name is Cemre. Kuzey falls for her on the first day they meet as teenagers, and she has remained in his heart while he served his prison sentence. Güney dated her during those years and they become engaged shortly after Kuzey’s return. Yet soon Güney breaks up with Cemre. He tells his brother he knows Kuzey loves her and he’ll give up on Cemre for his sake. But is this really Güney’s motivation for the split? Can Kuzey go against the cultural and social taboo prevalent in their world, that says it’s a sin to pursue your brother’s former love interest? Can he accept the girl he loves as a debt repayment?
This story is Kuzey Guney and it is quite possibly the best television series we have ever seen. Aired on Turkish TV between 2011 and 2013, it tells an extraordinary tale of honesty, love, courage and perseverance conquering the most difficult and insurmountable odds. It shows us how a single occurrence can change a person’s life forever and affect an entire family in myriad expected and unforeseen ways.
A family saga with imperfect, flawed, and realistic characters.
Central to the story is the Tekinoglu family:
The father Sami: A hard working self-employed baker, Sami is verbally and physically abusive to his wife Handan and their two sons. His default behavior is anger and yelling. This sets the tone for the entire family’s dysfunction, as the daily state of affairs in the Tekinoğlu household. Sami’s escape from the drudgery of his routine life and the stress of running his neighborhood business is to drink to excess. He loves his sons but doesn’t know how to show it. In family disputes he tends to side with Kuzey who is more like him, while at the same time berating him for what he sees as Kuzey’s irresponsible behavior. Yet as the series develops we witness the evolution of Sami’s character who though slowly and grudgingly, begins to try and make amends.
Handan, the mother: the classic portrait of an abused wife suffering from low self esteem, anxiety, and depression, Handan also nurses dreams of wealth and grandeur. She married Sami against her family’s wishes and after 25 years feels lonely, helpless, and embittered. She channels those negative emotions into grooming her eldest son Güney as her hope for a better life, while openly berating Kuzey her youngest, whom she sees as a worthless failure. Her words and actions on the fateful night of the accident and thereafter are equally responsible for the family’s continued state of conflict. Though Handan’s personality often appears to be a lost cause, by the end of the series she too has recognized the error of her ways.
Güney the eldest brother: His mother’s pride and joy Güney is smart, ambitious, and excels in school and in business. He possesses a strong work ethic that he no doubt inherited from his father. He does feel bogged down at times, overburdened with the pressure to succeed at all costs in order to help his mother. Güney’s way of dealing with the constant upheaval of his family life is through avoidance and detachment, though he is prone to fits of anger. Since childhood he has felt indebted toward his brother who, though younger was physically stronger, and often protected him from both their father’s wrath and assorted neighborhood bullies. Güney loves his brother yet secretly, also deeply envies him. His mother’s constant praise and adulation have endowed Güney with an exaggerated feeling of self importance.
Kuzey the youngest: the energetic and most boisterous member of the family whose antics usually get him in trouble. Impulsive to a fault, Kuzey often acts without thinking. He can be impetuous, jumping head first into situations that lead to problems. He displays a temper that is hard to control at times, leading to dangerous consequences for himself and others. Yet Kuzey is also an honest and kind-hearted young man with a handsome physique, a penetrating blue-eyed gaze, and a magnetic personality that people gravitate toward. His word is his bond – a promise is always kept. He can be the life of the party but at times also silent and sullen. With his qualities, he has all the makings of a winner, but his anger (inherited from his father) often gets in the way. He is deeply loyal, at times to a fault toward his family members, even when they have mistreated him. Although treated poorly by his family, and resentful upon returning from prison he maintains a sense of duty toward them throughout the series.
A story about brotherhood…
Brotherhood is a very strong theme in Turkish culture. Blood ties supersede all other commitments. It’s about what you do and don’t do as a brother, to your brother. About the taboos that are placed upon pursuing your brother’s love interest, even if they are no longer together. In traditional Turkish customs, your brother’s love whether current or former is forever your yenge (sister-in-law) and you do not dare challenge that tenet without suffering social consequences.
This internalized prohibition haunts Kuzey for the better part of the series as his loyalty to Güney along with adherence to that custom drives him again and again to suppress the love he feels for Cemre, even after he realizes she loves him too. In a heartbreaking scene set at Istanbul airport in Episode 50, Kuzey proceeds to break both their hearts by declaring his love for Cemre followed by his insistence that their love is forbidden and they can never be together.
But is true brotherhood only about blood ties and could your true brother be the friend who is always there for you, the one who always has your back, and always tells you the truth. In Kuzey Güney the complex relationship between the two blood brothers is acutely strained by the close bond between Kuzey and his lifelong friend Ali.
A story about the meaning of sacrifice
Sacrifice is a recurring theme in Kuzey Güney: the emotional demands and impact of these sacrifices on all the characters are core to the story and extremely well depicted through multiple scenes throughout the series.
It is shown in Kuzey giving up his own future by assuming Güney’s guilt and going to prison in his place, so his brother can preserve his chance to enter university…. It is depicted in Cemre’s decision to stay in an unhappy marriage so that the man she really loves can remain free. We see it in Ali selling his car and giving Kuzey the money so his friend can pay off a debt and avoid going back to prison. We see it mostly in Kuzey sacrificing his own chance at happiness with the only woman he has ever loved, as an ongoing show of loyalty to his brother based on a deeply held belief that loving Cemre is taboo. In the process Kuzey has lessened his chance at a successful and happy future.
An interesting portrait of Turkish society
In Kuzey Güney we also meet the upper class Sinaner family: Attila the father, founder and chairman of the board of a large business conglomerate; Ebru the mother, cold and manipulative, who takes over as head of the family business after Attila’s sudden passing. Banu, their beautiful but psychologically unstable daughter; and Baris, Ebru’s son and Banu’s half-brother, a morally challenged young businessman. An elitist uber wealthy family ensconced in a waterfront mansion under the protection of high gates and security guards, leaving it to party on swanky yachts or attend high brow invitation-only parties and charity events.
The two worlds collide as Banu Sinaner becomes infatuated with Güney Tekinoglu her university classmate and her father’s golf caddie, introducing him into the family business, and eventually marrying him.
Particularly telling of their differences are the neighborhoods where these families live: a two story apartment above the store and later, a small rental house in lower middle class Üsküdar for the Tekinoglus; a huge art and antiques- filled mansion on a hill overlooking the mighty Bosphorus for the Sinaners.
These stark social differences are also illustrated by the disparity in the two families daily customs: The go-to drink in the Sinaner family is wine or whiskey; for the Tekinoglus Turkish raki is the liquor of choice for Sami and his sons while the mother avoids alcohol. As with many traditional families the Tekinoglus take off their shoes when entering their or anybody’s home, while the more modern Sinaners make a point of ignoring this custom they view as lower class.
A story of neighborhood and community
Kuzey Güney also provides viewers unfamiliar with Turkey with a fascinating view of both the European and the Asian sides of the city of Istanbul, with residents commuting by car or ferries. We are also extensively introduced to the colorful neighborhood of Üsküdar where the Tekinoglus run their bakery, Cemre’s mother her hair salon, across the street their friend Huseyin his photo studio …and last but not least, to the large outdoor market where Ali and his business partner Ercan peddle their lingerie wares to female customers with a keen and enthusiastic sense of customer service.
The close relationships between local small business owners who are also neighbors can be at times stifling with characters in each others’ business on a daily basis, engaging in abundant gossip. Yet they also support and help each other. In other words it is a heartwarming portrait of a real community, also home to hundreds of stray animals, dogs and cats, who often appear underfoot during most outdoor scenes.
And a beautiful story of enduring love
The deeply felt love of true soul mates Kuzey and Cemre, can never be denied in spite of the external and internal forces at work to destroy it. They are friends to each other first and foremost, always there for each other when times are tough. For Kuzey, Cemre’s safety and happiness come first, he would give his life for her without hesitation even though he won’t openly give her his heart. Cemre shows an equal selflessness in her love for Kuzey, her deepest secret wish, hung from the wishing tree on her mother’s patio, is for “Kuzey to be happy”. Even if it is not with her.
Kuzey and Cemre exemplify unselfish love, but their story is one of unfulfilled passion. As they struggle with the taboos and obstacles to their relationship, each one of them throughout the series repeatedly attempts yet fails to forget the other through relationship with others, physical distance, and sheer force of willpower.
The good news is that after many trials and tribulations, their story has a happy ending. The last scene of the series showing Kuzey and Cemre driving off to start their married life together provides an albeit much too brief, but heartwarming ending to this epic series. One of the very few complaints we have about Kuzey Güney is that we wished the series would have shown us more of this beautiful couple’s long fought for happiness. We laughed, we cried, we loved along with these wonderful characters.
Kuzey and Cemre, along with the others, have remained real for us long after we finished watching through the brilliant writing and acting skills of their creators.
Delivering the inspired lines of screenwriters Ece Yorenç and Melek Gençoglu, is a large and mostly excellent cast of young as well as veteran Turkish actors, including the wonderful stage and screen actress Zerrin Tekindor as Gülten Çayak, Cemre’s exuberant helicopter mother, Mustafa Avkiran as dour Sami Tekinoglu and Semra Dincer as his resentful wife Handan.
Among this cast of many, four performances stood out for us:
Kivanç Tatlitug as Kuzey “The North” Tekinoglu
Kivanc delivered a powerful, transformative performance in the role of Kuzey Tekinoğlu, for which he won multiple acting awards. His Kuzey is unique and multifaceted. Kivanc built the character with a charismatic physical presence and a strong personality punctuated by quirky mannerisms that are well loved by fans of the series: from a silly laugh and a talent for hilarious pranks and imitations, to a lanky walk, and a famously distinctive one finger hold of a mobile phone.
It is well known that Kivanç followed an intensive training regimen to achieve the chiseled physique and boxing skills needed to realistically portray Kuzey in Season 1’s fighting scenes, a testament to his exceptionally hard work and commitment to character. His Kuzey the fighter is truly magnificent.
Yet, even more than his physical transformation, it is Kivanç’s strong yet subtle portrayal of the emotional and psychological evolution of Kuzey that makes his performance unforgettable. Seamlessly showing us Kuzey’s growth: from fun-loving and immature teenager to young prison inmate burying his emotions to survive, to angry young man looking to build a new life for himself in the face of hardship and rejection, on to the successful, respected young businessman who finally marries the love of his life.
Kivanç is particularly brilliant at portraying Kuzey’s resentment toward his family as he returns from prison, knowing full well they allowed him to confess to the crime because they saw him as less valuable than his brother. Yet Kuzey is able to forgive his parents and despite all the obstacles thrown at him, to remain a loving and supportive son: to his father, who beat him as a youth and berated him most of his life, and to his mother who endlessly found him at fault, and openly favored his brother over him.
Equally outstanding is Kivançs depiction of the complexity of Kuzey’s inner torment between the deep and unrelenting love he feels for Cemre, his perceived duty to his brother, and the cultural taboo of loving his brother’s ex-fiancee. Kivanç brilliantly portrayed the progression from Kuzey’s initial pride at not wanting to admit his love for Cemre despite Güney’s repeated provocations, to his slow but steady realization that his self-sacrifice has to be relinquished, and that his and Cemre’s love for each other must be must allowed to flourish so they can have a life together.
Bugra Gülsoy as Güney Tekinoglu
Bugra Gulsoy delivered a powerful and riveting portrayal of Guney’s conflicted personality: the close childhood bond with his brother as both suffered from their father’s anger, equal witnesses to their mother’s verbal and physical abuse; the crushing feeling of guilt for the debt he owed to Kuzey for the prison term. The burden of being made to feel responsible for his mother’s salvation. His simmering envy and jealousy of Kuzey’s natural entrepreneurial qualities and engaging personality.
In social media discussions about the series Güney is often depicted by viewers as the man everyone loves to hate. To us however, this character is far from a one-note villain. In his portrayal Bugra Gülsoy expertly shows us how a young man who had everything going for him and appeared to have achieved success in his professional and personal life, turned to bitterness and hate. Güney did everything he was supposed to do, yet his life wasn’t working. On the face of it he was successful but in reality he had nothing. He never managed to be accepted by the Sinaner clan who despised him, and his relationship with Banu unraveled due to her serious psychological and emotional issues that Güney discovered only after their marriage.
Buğra did a masterful job of showing how these multiple pressures drove an intelligent, promising young man to hate, blackmail and emotional manipulation, with his final descent into a kind of madness, with disastrous consequences.
Riza Kocaoglu as Ali Güntan
Ali is the childhood friend of the Tekinoglu brothers and Kuzey’s truest friend. Ali and Kuzey call each other kardesim (sibling…brother). They know each other so well they could be blood brothers. Though appearing only in Season 1 Riza Kocaoglu’s portrayal of Ali is not soon forgotten. Fiercely loyal to Kuzey and equally fun-loving, Ali is the perfect sidekick, always ready for new adventures with his friend. But he is also willing to stand up to him and tell him the truth as he sees it, particularly about a certain Cemre…
A talented actor who has since gone on to appear in other well-regarded Turkish dizis, Riza was perfectly cast as Ali and infused the character with a hilarious exuberance, a great balance for Kuzey’s more stoic demeanor, along with a more serious and sensitive side which made for highly emotional scenes between the two characters. Though Ali isn’t physically present in Season 2, he remains integral to the story, and to the Kuzey character particularly. Ali is with Kuzey until the end.
Öykü Karayel as Cemre Çayak
All of 21 years old when she filmed Season 1 of Kuzey Guney Öykü Karayel delivered in our opinion a very strong and gifted performance for a young actress in her first TV series, especially playing opposite stars of Kivanç Tatlitug, Bugra Gülsoy, and Zerrin Tekindor’s calibers. Her Cemre with her long chestnut hair and huge green eyes has street smarts, along with a sweet girl- next- door quality. Yet she can easily morph into a stunning beauty. Small in physical stature Öykü’s Cemre was big in heart. She did a remarkable job of portraying Cemre’s gradual realization that this self-sacrificing young man – Kuzey – was actually the one she loved, and always had in her heart. She was also excellent at showing Cemre’s relentlessness in her support for Kuzey. Öykü’s portrayal poignantly shows us both the depth of Cemre’s ability to sacrifice, and her iron will on behalf of her love. These qualities ultimately succeed in breaking the chains that Kuzey had tied around his heart.
We cried and cheered for Cemre when Kuzey proposed to her in Episode 75. If ever a woman deserved to win her man it was Cemre, and Öykü showed us why she did.
A final note
So should you watch Kuzey Güney? if you have never seen it the answer is a resounding yes! Even though almost 10 years have passed since the first airing of season 1, it remains in our eyes a classic masterpiece of Turkish drama, featuring multilayered, realistic characters; complex topics that are deeply and sensitively explored; an outstanding screenplay; inspired directing; and several brilliant performances. Last but not least it’s a deep and beautiful love story for the ages.
Huge credit for the appeal of this show must also be given to the multi-awarded soundtrack, created by prolific Turkish composer and singer Toygar Isikli and including the title song Hayat Gibi (Such as Life).
And if you have seen it should you see it again ? We have, and every time we have watched we have understood it more, noticed new details, seen the characters in new and different lights.
The story remains fresh, the performances as vivid and life-like now as when the series first aired. This is the mark of a true classic. Like a good Beatles song Kuzey Güney has not become obsolete because its message is universal:
If you try hard and never give up, if you have an honest and loving heart, you can overcome the most insurmountable odds and come out on top. This is why “Kuzey is our hero”.
(C) Copyright by Kivanc Tatlitug North America, Michele Calderon and Kathy Jones Toth
All pictures and video clips belong to their respective owners.