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'The Sales Girl' Is Triumphantly More Than A Bildungsroman

Film Movement

The coming-of-age tale comes with circumscriptions. There seems to be a finish line, the point at which a character has successfully achieved fullness, has passed a test after learning everything they need to know, such as the need to correct the errors of their past ways, to live a good life. To come into oneself suggests completion, the end of growing pains and the tumult of learning, with perfection and stability awaiting.

Mongolian director Mongolian director Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s The Sales Girl Sengedorj’s The Sales Girl is described as a coming-of-age tale. Saruul (Bayarjargal Bayartsetseg) is in university studying to be an engineer because that’s what her parents want of her. Indescribably bored, she spends her classes making sketches of her professor, which are not so much caricatures as they are imaginings of the older woman in her private life. When one of Saruul’s classmates slips on a banana peel and breaks her leg, she asks Saruul to cover for her at her job as a sex shop sales clerk. Saruul reluctantly agrees and finds her life forever changed as she is taken under the shop owner Katya’s (Oidovjamts Enkhtuul) wing. 

Katya shows Saruul something more meaningful than how to come into her own: she shows her that this kind of growth is a possibility at all; and while Katya opens Saruul’s eyes, Saruul helps Katya, too, reflecting the older woman's lessons of elasticity and possibility back toward her. As each woman helps the other flower, staining the other's life indelibly as latex paint on canvas, The Sales Girl seems to show that we are constantly coming into ourselves, especially as, and perhaps because, we are constantly coming into others' lives; that there is no finality when it comes to growth, that life is flux and change and learning, and that the neat lines of perfect being that traditional coming-of-age stories suggest will always be morphed by the currents of fallible life. The Sales Girl, it seems, is something much more defiantly alive than a traditional coming-of-age tale. 

A quiet girl, Saruul begins the film floating sleepily through life, following her parents’ plan for her. At heart and in private, Saruul is an artist — she paints and sketches with an innate talent just waiting to be polished by training, and she loves music. (Mongolian indie-folk singer Magnolian’s music’s sympathetic synths punctuate the film, with the musician appearing often throughout to mark chapters in Saruul and Katya’s adventures.) But she keeps her artistic personality under wraps, not so much due to shame as it is due to pragmatism. Saruul and her parents live in a cramped apartment in Ulaanbaatar, and her parents earn a living by making slippers and selling them at a market. Saruul understands why her parents would want her to become an engineer — so that she might earn a more comfortable life for herself and perhaps even them. In a sense, Saruul is much more self-aware and mature than your typical bildungsroman protagonist, beginning the film at the position of sober adulthood, a position of having had to grow up too early as the child of working class adults; her maturity only seems precocious, but is really something demanded of most by the brute reality of the world.

Working at Katya’s sex shop and through her acquaintance with the older, more worldly woman, Saruul learns not just about life, but also that it is possible to achieve a certain kind of happiness and satisfaction, which is a lesson that even Saruul’s parents, grown adults that they are, have either forgotten or never learned. Saruul’s journey with Katya is more than sex education; it’s an electric thrill. 

Katya used to be a dancer in her youth. Her home, a sensory delight, is littered with the detritus of dilettante luxury. Books on philosophy and history, memoirs of literary giants, and records of jazz greats all abound. Music continuously lilts in the air about Katya as she eats indulgent food and delightedly sips cognac and brandy, while building one of her beloved Lego sets. On a superficial first impression, Katya seems like an overgrown child. And it is perhaps a superficial impression that might lead one to say of the film that it is a coming-of-age tale, too, because ostensibly and in broad strokes, Katya reveals and teaches an epicurean way of life to Saruul, taking moments to expound her philosophy of enjoying life to the fullest and without shame. 

But in the same breath, it feels strange to say that Katya shows Saruul how to live (though it is something Katya would be pleased to hear) because this is not really what’s going on in The Sales Girl. The film depicts something much more complex than a simple tale of a young woman learning how to live. Because what Katya shows Saruul isn’t how to live a life, but rather, one way to live a life. Katya’s world is a world that puts the senses on a pedestal; she is a woman who indulges in good food, music, art, and sex, and is proud of it. She also wants for others, especially Saruul, to live as she lives, to be unashamed in their passions, to strive for their dreams, to live in the moment and honour their body’s desires.  

To say the film is about Katya teaching Saruul how to live life and come into her own would be a shallow read on the film, one that it is not worth taking. What is actually going on in The Sales Girl is that, as Katya works to show Saruul a way of being, Saruul is also granted the autonomy to make sense of what Katya is teaching her, and to decide whether the path Katya reveals is one for her. If anything, Saruul’s time with Katya shows the young woman that there is more to life than toil, and I believe the film’s genius is placing the world before Saruul and having her make up her own mind as to the life she wants to lead — one like her parents’, like Katya’s, or something unique and very much her own.  

At the sex shop, Saruul encounters various people who have made various choices and have various attitudes toward sex. Some are shy about what they are looking for — whether it be dildos or Viagra or asking for sex itself — while others are brazen and self-assured, like Katya. Saruul observes all these various attitudes, at first with confusion and then with ironic humour. If the film really were a flat coming-of-age tale wherein Saruul learns how to be through Katya, she would end the film with an attitude toward sex similar to Katya’s — confident and indulgent, living in the moment. But that’s not what Sengedorj depicts, because he understands that Saruul begins the film with a certain measure of selfhood, which the director respects. Saruul experiments and attempts to become like Katya, but swiftly learns that that would be too great a departure from who she is, from what she is comfortable with, from her priorities. 


This is not to say that Saruul remains unchanged or undeveloped. Certainly, during her time with Katya, seeing how the woman lives her life, Saruul comes out of her shell and awakens to life’s beauty. She cuts her hair and wears bolder colours, clothing that shows off her form. She begins wearing make-up and learns to respect the place sex holds in people’s lives. At one point, Katya has Saruul deliver sex toys to a woman in prison, and the young woman realizes the liberating power of pleasure. But Saruul also realizes something much more trenchant through her time with Katya — though Katya sees herself as teaching Saruul how to be a liberated woman at peace with her sexuality, Katya herself is deeply flawed and very human. 

One of my favourite scenes in the film comes about halfway through. Saruul feels betrayed and violated after an unpleasant experience with one of Katya’s sex shop customers, a man Katya sends Saruul to make a delivery to. Incensed, Saruul tells Katya that she wants to quit, that Katya doesn’t respect her and the life she comes from. Saruul vocalizes an observation: Katya is only able to live her epicurean lifestyle because she is wealthy, but this isn’t something Saruul can unequivocally choose, nor is it something everyone, least of all her parents, can willfully choose. Saruul is deeply justified in her anger, and also correct in what she says — Katya wants to mould Saruul into being like herself; she wants her to give up studying engineering, to love sex, to live solely for her pleasures and a love for art. But for Saruul to live like Katya, she would have to cast away her family, whom she clearly loves. This demand Katya makes of Saruul is no different to the demand Saruul’s parents make of Saruul, to be as they imagine her to be, completely eliding her true and autonomous self. Saruul’s confrontation of Katya is a deeply powerful scene wherein the young woman asserts her individuality for the first time, and it is against Katya, her teacher, while maintaining the individuality she begins the film with. 

A further education for Saruul is contained in a collection of moments wherein she learns that Katya herself is deeply sad, isn’t the perfect and whole person she presents herself as. Katya is deeply lonely and mourns the loss of her youth, the loss of all those whom she loved. Everyone seems to leave Katya, whether through death or conflict (just in the unglamorous way that people sometimes leave), and she is deeply fractured by and sensitive to unremitting and unrelenting losses. In a sense, Katya learns self-sufficiency from Saruul, while Saruul learns how to reach for life’s joys, but only those joys she actually wants, not Katya’s joys. In other words, this is a coming-of-age tale for Katya, too. She is fallible and makes legible the fact that we never stop learning how to stay alive, how to live in a way that is good and kind and honours the self. 

The Sales Girl is a treasure for the ways in which it beautifully complicates the coming-of-age tale, expanding its trite ways and leaving it free of confines because it understands that nobody ever stops growing. The film’s final moment isn’t neatly packaged, isn’t altogether too satisfying, but neither is life. Saruul walks away from the camera and into her life, and we know that she will take bits of Katya into her future, but will also maintain an assured sense of herself, and her parents, as she grows and flourishes. We rest assured that Saruul, who was once a sales girl, will continue to make mistakes as she reaches for her own version of joy,and this is The Sales Girl’s endlessly alive lesson. 


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