Saruul is studying to be an engineer when she agrees to take the last job her cosmopolitan but still relatively conservative Mongolian parents would ever imagine their daughter doing: selling intimacy aids (of the vibrating, silicone and inflatable variety) in a basement-level sex shop. Technically, Saruul’s just filling in for a shy friend at school who trusts her to be discreet, but this temporary gig has a subtle yet life-changing impact on the title character, who looks like she could be 14 years old at first, but blossoms into a more self-aware young woman over “The Sales Girl’s” slightly overlong running time.
The top prize winner of the New York Asian Film Festival, veteran director Sengedorj Janchivdorj’s umpteenth feature takes a frank, sex-positive approach to the titillating world in which it’s set. But that doesn’t make this an erotic film. Instead, “The Sales Girl” focuses mostly on the unlikely friendship between Saruul (Bayartsetseg Bayangerel) and her Russian-speaking boss Katya (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts), a surly ex-dancer who takes a linking to her naive new employee. In a funny way, the film shares the slightly edgy but ultimately sentimental vibe of certain underground comics (“Ghost World” comes to mind) or the work of American indie director Sean Baker, whose last four features (dating back to “Starlet,” the film this most resembles) have had the honesty to acknowledge the role sexuality plays in modern life and commerce.
When Westerners think of Mongolian movies, practically the only ones they’ve been exposed to concern Genghis Khan (“Mongol”) or colorful rural characters: throat singers and eagle huntresses, nomadic yurt dwellers and weeping camels. It’s rare to get a contemporary drama set in the big city, since cultural differences can often be easier to market than overlaps. Although much of “The Sales Girl” feels consistent with life in London or New York, it’s the Mongolia-specific details that make the film so memorable — like a scene on the steppes, where Saruul and Katya pelt each other with mushrooms, or an early-morning fishing trip just downstream from a flirtatious group of skinny dippers.
It’s easy to imagine a shy, introverted girl like Saruul in practically any culture. She doesn’t want to be a scientist. Instead, the artistic teen spends her time sketching. But there’s no way she could convince her parents to let her go to art school, and so she ambles toward a grown-up life she has no interest in leading. In one scene that would be right at home in a graphic novel, Saruul and her friend Tovdorj sit around smoking, while the boy’s giant Saint Bernard sits lazily at their feet. Saruul remarks on the dog’s “bored face” and wonders why it seems so unfulfilled — a question that applies equally to Saruul, whose expression is blank much of the time.
Katja calls her “dopey,” which is a fair way to describe the girl’s perplexingly ambivalent attitude, although the film surprises us too with unexpected private moments, like one in which she nibbles on a sheet of paper and shoots spitballs at a canvas painting she’s been working on. When overwhelmed, Saruul simply puts on her headphones and shuts out the world, retreating into a bubble where local indie musician Dulguun Bayasgalan (aka Magnolian) steps into frame and sings one of his mellow emo tunes. It’s a nice touch of surrealism in a film that’s otherwise refreshingly direct about sex’s place in society (people have a way of assuming that just because Saruul works in an adult store, she’s “easy” or experienced, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth).
After work, Saruul delivers Viagra and toys to various clients, including a visit to a shady building where police storm the halls and arrest the prostitutes — and Saruul, too. During one house call, a lonely customer offers her a million tugrik (just a few hundred dollars) to give him “a hand,” and it takes Saruul shockingly long to realize what’s being asked of her. After both incidents, Saruul tells Katja that she quits. But there’s something about the job — and the way the older woman mentors her, offering life lessons and sharing her own regrets — that seems essential to Saruul’s evolution as an adult. Less convincing is a scene where Saruul rents a hotel room and tries a number of toys on herself. It takes its time to get there, but in the end, “The Sales Girl” is about taking charge of one’s own life, where sex is just one dimension of a well-rounded process of self-discovery.