As far I as I can remember, my campus years in Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were mostly uneventful. Unless I watched movies or read books, my mind was usually occupied with getting good grades by any means necessary, and I did not have much interest in hanging around with others. I did join a club later, but I still preferred to be alone while not giving a damn about others around me, and that tendency of mine still remains inside me although I have been relatively less antisocial these days.
While what is disturbingly shown from the small campus world of “Burning Sands” is quite different from my campus experience in numerous aspects, I observed its several intense moments with a sort of anthropological fascination. Desiring for the sense of belonging and identity, its hero and several young characters around him let themselves driven and abused by toxic ideas of masculinity as going through their unforgiving fraternity initiation process, and we cannot help but cringe as they are pushed further and further into the dark pit of brutality and apathy.
The movie begins with its hero’s voice-over as he and other pledges are going to somewhere outside their campus. Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is a student of some prestigious university for African Americans, and he and other pledges are about to take their very first step toward Lambda Lambda Phi fraternity, one of the prominent fraternity in their university, After they arrive at a certain remote spot as instructed, they are forced to do push-ups by a senior fraternity member, and one of them eventually gets dropped out of the process just because he shows some compassion to Zurich.
Of course, this is a mere beginning for more acts of punishment and humiliation, and senior fraternity members are ready to grab any excuse for bullying their pledges. For instance, when Zurich and other pledges make a minor mistake in delivering booze to the fraternity house, it initially seems that mistake will be forgiven as everyone in the house enjoys the party, but then, not so surprisingly, there comes a cruel moment of punishment in the basement, and Zurich and other junior candidates have no choice but to endure this until their seniors are satisfied enough.
Because it will probably be all right once they pass through their first week which will culminate to a big ritual to be held during the upcoming Saturday night, Zurich and other pledges try to harden themselves, but the situation often becomes almost unbearable as they manage to move from one ritual to another together. Although there is a senior member who is a little more generous than other senior members, he only prevents other seniors members from going too far from time to time, and it looks like that is all he can do, even though it is clear that he does not like what he and other senior members do to Zurich and other pledges.
Maybe they can just quit, but Zurich and other pledges are pressured by not only current fraternity members but also former ones. Individually sponsored by some of those former fraternity members, they certainly do not want to fail in what they are expected to do, and their sponsors surely have lots of expectation on them. In case of Zurich, his sponsor is none other than the dean of the university, and we are not so surprised when Zurich comes to learn how much the dean is willing to turn a blind eye on what is going inside his beloved fraternity.
Meanwhile, Zurich finds himself becoming more distant to others who really care about him. His father, who once tried but failed in the same fraternity initiation when he studied in his son’s university many years ago, wants to talk more with his son, but Zurich keeps distancing himself from his father probably because his father’s old failure reminds him that he can also fail anytime. Zurich’s girlfriend begins to worry more about Zurich as he suffers more punishment and humiliation from the fraternity, but then there comes a point when she decides that she can no longer continue her relationship with him. In case of Professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard), she seems to sense something wrong from Zurich, but there is not much she can do as he chooses to remain silent about what he and other pledges are coerced to do.
The screenplay by director Gerard McMurray and his co-writer Christian T. Berg is predictable in its progress toward its eventual arrival point, and many of its supporting characters are rather underdeveloped, but the movie compensates for these weak aspects as constantly sustaining the level of uneasy tension on the screen. When Zurich and his fellow pledges eventually come to confront that dreaded ritual of Saturday night, the movie pulls no punch at all as vividly and frighteningly presenting their sheer pain and humiliation in front of senior fraternity members, and then there comes an inevitable moment as we have worried from the beginning.
Shortly before writing this review, I came across a New York Times article on one unfortunate case of fraternity hazing, and I must tell you that what is described in that article chillingly resonates with what I observed from “Burning Sands”. While not wholly satisfying in several aspects, the movie still works as an intense, biting experience on the whole, and it will certainly give you some valuable insights on its dark subject.