Image from ‘The Sales Girl.’ Courtesy

A slice of urban life is the last thing that comes to mind when considering films set in  Mongolia. The Sales Girl, a film by Sengedorj Janchivdorj, invites us into Saruul’s life  (Bayartsetseg Bayangerel), a university student suFering through yet another science class while secretly sketching as the instructor lectures. A classmate convinces Saruul to fill in  for her as a sales girl at a sex shop owned by Katya (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts), a world weary,  older woman who lives in a lavishly decorated apartment by herself. 

The film takes us on an adventure that borders on black comedy as Saruul’s deadpan face  observes the odd behavior of the sex shop’s customers, some shy, some idiotic, as they  navigate how to purchase intimate items in front of a stranger. In no way does the film try to  force Saruul’s interactions with the customers as erotically charged. If anything, the young  woman appears perplexed by the interest in sex, and sometimes embarrassed, such as  when she makes a delivery and inadvertently sees more than she should. 

The film plays to the strength of the relationship between Katya, who has so much but is  lonely, and Saruul, who lives with her family in a tiny apartment and shares a room with her  little brother. Katya practically forces a friendship with Saruul to broaden her mind about  sex and life, claiming that the girl is dopey. But really, it’s a way to fill an emptiness that the  older woman keeps in check after a lifetime filled with tragedies. 

It’s hard to tell whether Saruul enjoys her interactions with Katya her face registers very  few emotions but it’s certainly an education about a life her parents could never give her.  The exposure to a life fully lived, even if it isn’t a life full of safe choices, isn’t something  Saruul feels comfortable exploring, which is one reason she refuses to consider an art  degree despite her talent for it. Katya’s role in Saruul’s life is troubling, especially when it’s  unclear whether her demands reflect a sincere interest in the girl’s wellbeing or are simply the demands of an entitled twat. 

The film’s foray into non-realism serves as a nice counterpoint to Saruul’s blank expression  and the non-events that mark her life. Indeed, when listening to music and creating art are  the only times Saruul comes alive, it’s like she’s waiting for someone to give her permission to live. Her temporary position as a sales girl forces her into situations she may have never encountered. While the film runs a little too long, the miseducation of Saruul, and scenes  of urban Mongolian life and people, make this film worth seeking.   

Previous articleIn ‘Mourning a Breast,’ author Xi Xi ruminates on human fragility and strength
Next articleNonwhite and Woman: How do we tell our life stories?