The Sales Girl is part of the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival line-up. This film from Mongolia, written and directed by Janchivdorj Sengedorj, is an original coming-of-age story that comes with dildos.
Cashier girl Namuuna, after slipping on a banana and breaking her leg, must find someone to temporarily take her place at work. She chooses her classmate Saruul (Bayarjargal Bayartsetseg), a coy, nuclear engineer student who gets plunged into the realm of a sex shop.
During this experience Saruul gets to know her employer, Katya (Oidovjamts Enkhtuul), that initially seems stiff and austere. As they spend more time together the woman reveals an eccentric quirkiness and vulnerability, while teaching the temporary sales girl the art of living.
If the story were set in Japan, the relationship between Katya and Saruul would come across as a modern and entrepreneurial dynamic between a Geiko (a professional female entertainer) and a Maiko (an apprentice geisha). But the narrative takes place in Mongolia, the landlocked country in East Asia, bordered by Russia and China where Western influences are a rarity. It is Katya who unveils to Saruul the charm of other cultures, starting with the Pink Floyd’s legendary album The Dark Side of The Moon. She prompts Saruul to close her eyes and inhale its essence: “Doesn’t it smell like the 70’s?” she asks her. The female mentor further shares a fascinating chronicle about the sexual preferences of a variety of men who made history, describing Dostoyevsky’s first partner, Goethe’s age when he lost his virginity, along with more lustful anecdotes involving Hemingway, Chopin, Dumas, Hitler, and even a woman, Cleopatra.
In parallel to the youthful discovery of carnal knowledge, Saruul leads her life in a quiet and introspective way. She paints with a Chagall quality, that is enriched by a mixed media apocalyptic touch. Her artistic calling finds full expression later in the story, once she has filled her mental baggage with experience. Along the way she makes friends with Jong-Su, an aspiring actor who is often accompanied by Bim, a Saint Bernard who is initially very lazy compared to other stray dogs.
Saruul can be sociable if needed, but it is in solitude that she allows her thoughts to flow freely. When she rides the bus wearing headphones, she is transported to a world of monochromatic nuances that shut her from the reality she wants to avoid. These instances come across as a form of emotional self-care, through the notes of the songs by Bayasgalan Dulguun, better known under his stage name Magnolian — a Mongolian crooner-songwriter who also has a cameo in the film.
The Sales Girl is rated 18 because of the sex toys that are scattered throughout the narrative, but the nudity or allusion to intercourse is never vulgar, on the contrary it’s rather chaste. Sexuality is confronted from a more philosophical angle, with humour and nonchalance. We observe Saruul going around the house in her underwear, using the toilet, checking herself in the mirror to figure if she likes her body or not, and handling sex toys as products she has to sell. If her job had been in a bookshop she would have described the publications in the same detailed and disenchanted manner.
On the other hand, the moment comes for this wholesome girl to get a firsthand contact with sexuality, through two circumstances. The first one is unpleasant when she gets molested by a client. The second occasion is her first attempt at consensual sex with a peer, that does not turns out as planned but is cathartically amusing for both of them.
As the story progresses we do not witness only an adolescent’s discovery of adulthood, but also the frailty of a woman whose life seems solved. Contrarily to Saruul and her family, Katya lives in privilege having established her own business, defying conventions. She seems to know all the answers, for instance if Saruul has been taught that “It’s never too late for happiness,” Katya clarifies that: “Happiness that arrives late brings sorrow.” The experienced woman has navigated in a man’s world understanding how both genders think, and what causes certain feelings to emerge, like jealousy that she defines as “the fear that someone else will give your partner the joy you couldn’t.” She truly comes across as someone who has achieved everything her heart desired, and yet there is something missing. The encounter between the two women and a seven year old, will bring to the surface haunting memories.
Throughout their acquaintance, both Katya and Saruul benefit from the presence of the other, and just as unintentionally as they appeared in each other’s lives, they drift apart. But not all is lost, what is left are some mementos that celebrate the way their paths crossed osmotically leaving a mark in their souls.
Final Grade: B+
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All Images ©Sengedorj TusheeLLC / Nomadia pictures LLC