Credit: Film Movement
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Horizon Line

The Sales Girl — Sengedorj Janchivdorj

May 28, 2024

“The thing in the corner is a vagina tightener. Women always ask for these,” says the usually quiet young university student Saruul (Bayarjargal Bayartsetseg) while filling in a shift for her friend who works at a sex shop. But despite taking place within a sex shop, The Sales Girl, one of the few Mongolian new releases to hit VOD so far this year, features a lot less sex than one might initially suppose. Even the time spent in the sex shop is relatively tame for the subject matter, and director Sengedorj Janchivdorj instead fixates more on embarrassment than sexual curiosity and kink. The kernel under the provocative front is an earnest and moving film about taking agency and ownership of one’s individuality during young adulthood.

Janchivdorj doesn’t deliver the spicy or raunchy film that one might enter expecting, but that doesn’t mean The Sales Girl has nothing to offer on the front of cinematic sexuality and sexual maturation. Saruul’s relationship with the owner of the store, Katya (Oidovjamts Enkhtuul), a former professional dancer, helps move the young girl into womanhood, not through sexual tutorship or any creepy May-December coercion. Rather, the development of their relationship into a space that encourages self-awareness and agency resembles the relationship between a coach and a young athlete in your typical sports movie. Katya’s immaturity, and ironically her wisdom as gained through life experiences, pulls Saruul, whether she likes it or not, into full-fledged adulthood.  The only real sex scene — one that notably features a comically exaggerated cum shot — comes at the film’s conclusion, in true sexual climax fashion. And it does indeed feel like cathartic (orgasmic?) release, even if what precedes is less foreplay than a presentation of incremental vulnerability and individual artistic realization. The orgasm has less to do with sex than it does with a happy ending for.

Janchivdorj’s film is at its best in the time spent with Saruul as an artist. When she meets Katya, she’s studying nuclear engineering because it’s the path her parents chose for her; her passions rest elsewhere. When she’s not at school, the sex shop, or delivering Viagra to customers after work, the shy young woman spends most of her time painting sprawling outdoor scenes in her room. The freedom Katya enables her with through the sex shop eventually translates into a new, different kind of freedom, one where the young woman is enabled to make choices for herself and in service of her desires (sexual and otherwise) rather than limiting herself to her parents’ decisions. The sex scene at the film’s conclusion illustrates this best. Saruul’s sexual partner ejaculates on the ceiling of her room, the two of them then picking up her paint brushes to spread and play with his cum in the same way they would acrylics, laughing and smiling in their carousal. But it’s at this moment, both of them nude, that her parents walk in. Janchivdorj and editor Munkhbat Shirnen cut before her parents can fully scold and snap at their daughter, and the decision sharply minimizes the negative consequences that might be delivered upon her newfound sexual agency, and perhaps intentionally contrasts the conservative sexual standards of Saruul’s parents with creative and career repression (and psychologically fulfilling creative and career pursuits). Sex and painting become one in the scene, as opposed to the twin constraints of nuclear engineering and abstinence.

That’s not to say there is nothing explicitly sexual to The Sales Girl. Janchivdorj slips in sexual innuendo, suggestive messaging, and visual puns left and right. From opening the film on the image of a banana peel to a phallic penetration of a cake with a candle, sex is still very much on the filmmakers’ minds, even if they display it differently than the characters. One of the film’s best scenes comes when Saruul tries the toys that she sells on herself while tossing and turning in a hotel bed. Her experimentation occurs entirely under bed sheets as the filmmakers choose to highlight the emotional experience of her experimentation, namely frustration, instead of leaning into the easier option of cinematic voyeurism. And that’s what makes The Sales Girl interesting as a sexual coming-of-age story: sex functions as a means of self-discovery rather than a teleological conclusion of objectivity and pleasure.

DIRECTOR: Sengedorj Janchivdorj;  CAST: Bayartsetseg Bayarjargal, Enkhtuul Oidovjamts, Bayarmaa Khuselbaatar;  DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement;  STREAMING: May 24;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 3 min.