NYAFF 2022: The Sales Girl

Directed by: Janchivdorj Sengedorj
Distributed by: TBD

Written by Patrick Hao


“The Sales Girl” directed by Jachivdorj Sengedorj is an interesting entry in the genre of young women who find their sexual awakening. The film is from Mongolia, which is already in a peculiar cultural cross-section of east and west situated between Russia and China. Transposing this well-worn subject to this cultural context adds an extra layer of intrigue that is further heightened by Sengedorj’s unique point of view. 

While on the surface, the film is about a woman’s sexual awakening, the connection is not between two romantic partners. Rather, it is about the influence of a mentor figure – someone whose presence is aspirational. The two women that form this bond are Saruul (Bayartsetseg Bayangerel) and Katya (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts). Saruul is a shy student who is studying nuclear engineering only because her parents want her to, despite her true ambition to be an artist. When her friend injured herself in a banana peel slip and fall, she suggests that Saruul takes her place as a sales girl for a sex shop. It is there that Saruul meets Katya, the eccentric middle-aged Russian owner of the shop. Katya immediately becomes a point of fascination for Saruul through her charisma and enigmatic nature. Katya views her sex shop as a pharmacy, helping fulfill those with something missing in their life.  

Their bond further solidifies when Katya asks Saruul to begin making night deliveries of sex toys to a series of other eccentrics. These deliveries are quirky and comedic slice-of-life vignettes, similar to that of the HBO show “High Maintenance,” where instead of marijuana deliveries, it’s sex toys. When Saruul ends her night by giving Katya the proceeds of her deliveries, she is regaled with monologues of Katya’s life story, whether real or fantastical is up in the air. She was a dancer, a prisoner, she knows the sexual proclivities of famous figures in history. 

The influence Katya and the job has on Saruul is immediate. And while the job becomes darker and more dangerous, Saruul finds herself more open and self-confident in her convictions. Sengedorj heightens these moments of self-discovery with flights of filmic fancies. Throughout the film, during Saruul’s most self-reflexive moments, the film will dip into a pseudo music video with the film’s composer Dulguun Bayasgalan. His baritone voice and The National-like indie rock aesthetic anchor Saruul’s headspace as a sort of Greek chorus for the film. Other private moments are turned into dreamlike explorations of self and body. None of it would work as well as it does without the strong performance from Bayangerel in her first film performance.

“The Sales Girl” presents an interesting contrast to another film recently released, Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick.” Both are dealing with sexually inexperienced and sheltered women who find themselves discovering their burgeoning sexuality. Yet, Dunham’s film, as part of its satire, infantilizes her protagonist beyond disbelief. Here, Saruul is not unaware of sex. She just has not been open to it, really a byproduct of the cultural landscape she lives in. She discovers her agency through the ordeals she experiences. 

Even without the context of the contemporary Mongolian film scene, it is clear that Sengedorj is an interesting filmmaker within it. He was able to render fresh a type of film that is usually ripe with trite cliches, all while harkening to cultural explorations that feel both specific to Mongolia and endearingly universal.

“The Sales Girl” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the New York Asian Film Festival.

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