The Sales Girl (Худалдагч охин, Janchivdorj Sengedorj, 2021)

A shy young student of nuclear engineering’s horizons are broadened through her friendship with an eccentric old lady who runs a sex shop where she ends up working after being bamboozled into covering a classmate’s shifts in Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s charming coming-of-age dramedy The Sales Girl (Худалдагч охин, Khudaldagch ohin). Showing another side of contemporary Mongolia, Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s humorous tale turns on the unusual friendship that arises between the two women each in their own way lonely and looking for a kind of liberation from a sometimes hopeless existence. 

Saruul (Bayartsetseg Bayarjargal) is only studying nuclear engineering because her parents told her to and in truth would rather be an artist spending her evenings in her room crafting textured paintings rather than going out having fun. Her solitary air may be the reason she’s approached by another girl whom she hardly knows, Namuuna, who asks her to cover her shifts at work because she’s broken her leg slipping on a banana peel. Saruul is a little reluctant, unable to understand why Namuuna is being so secretive about the nature of her job anxious that she not tell anyone about where she works largely as we find out because it’s a sex shop run by an eccentric old lady whose cat she’s supposed to feed when she goes to drop off the day’s takings at her swanky new build townhouse. To begin with, Katya (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts) is gruff and unfriendly, somewhat unpleasant and intimidating yet something intrigues her about Saruul and gradually the two women begin to generate an awkward friendship. 

As if immediately picking up on her inner conflict, Katya scoffs “where will that get you?” when Saruul explains she’s studying nuclear engineering perhaps fairly suggesting that in terms of finding steady income there may not be much difference between a career as a painter and someone with a degree in such a specific subject. In any case, Saruul is largely unfazed by the nature of her work at the sex shop, taking it mainly in her stride though telling her parents only that she’s been helping out with “deliveries” of “medications” including “human organs” which fits in nicely with Katya’s life philosophy in which she runs a “pharmacy” that sells things to help unhappy people find fulfilment and the self-confidence to restart their lives. Somewhat sceptical, Saruul tries out her advice on her friend’s dog Bim which she’d always thought seemed a bit bored and lethargic, “not really like a dog at all”, feeding him a tab of viagra and then panicking when he disappears only to discover him out living his best life running with the local strays. 

Meanwhile under Katya’s influence she begins to open up too, getting a more fashionable haircut and dressing in a more individual fashion while embracing her sexuality in deciding to seduce her friend Tovdorj who is equally lost in contemporary Mongolian society where as he puts it you work all your life to get a small apartment and a Prius, planning to change his name to Jong-Su and become an actor only to be told he has “hollow, vapid eyes”. Saruul may be equally directionless but while fascinated by Katya’s sense of mystery, this elegant older woman with a Russian name who claims to have been a famous dancer but also at one point spent time in prison and now seems to be fabulously wealthy, she becomes disillusioned when presented with the dark sides of her work, almost arrested as a sex worker and then harassed by a creepy customer after unwisely agreeing to enter his home while attempting to deliver a package. As she points out, Katya is already quite divorced from “real life” and may struggle to understand the reality of Saruul’s existence living in a small apartment where her parents craft felt shoes to sell at the market after coming to the city when she was around 10 even though her father was once a teacher of Russian. 

Then again as Saruul comes to realise Katya has had a lot of sadness in her life and the wisdom she has to impart is sound if often eccentric meditating on the fact that happiness that comes late is in its own way sad because you no longer have the capacity to enjoy it to its fullest. Even so, she is doing her best to chase happiness and helping others, Saruul included, to do the same. Gradually, Saruul sheds her ubiquitous headphones which allow her to zone out into an internal disco complete with flashing coloured lights to become more herself with a little help from her fairy godmother, the ever elusive Katya. Quirky yet heartfelt, The Sales Girl sheds new light on the concerns of young people in Mongolia but finally allows the reserved heroine to free herself of her preconceived notions to live her life the way she wants a little more aware of the world around her. 


The Sales Girl screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

I, the Sunshine (Би Нар, Janchivdorj Sengedorj, 2019)

Childhood nostalgia and the changing Mongolian society come together in Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s triptych of warmhearted children’s stories, I, The Sunshine (Би Нар, Bi Nar). Set between the Steppe and the city and around 30 years apart, Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s three tales aren’t so much about idealising a traditional way of life or denigrating the increasingly digitised, modern society but emphasising that children are often resourceful and determined and above all mean well, while people are sunshine and have a duty to bring love to one another. 

Narrated by the hero of the final tale, Ideree (J. Irmuun), the first concerns his father, Bodi (U. Itgel), who grew up in a small village on the Steppe and later became an engineer because of the events he is about to convey to us though Ideree isn’t entirely sure he believes the stories his dad has told him. In any case, this one is about modernity coming to the village in the form of a television. Previously, the entire community had to cram into the back of a pickup truck and head to the Soum Centre to watch the latest instalment of the TV soap on which they are all hooked, but Bodi’s dad has returned from the city with a set of his own much to the consternation of his wife who feels he ought to have spent the money on a ger for his oldest son soon to return from the military. Unfortunately, however, no one has quite grasped how TV works and being set so low they can’t receive a signal. It being the summer holidays Bodi and his friends are determined to figure out how to get the TV working, firstly by asking their bored physics teacher who is busy with experiments of his own and sends them away with a diagram explaining how an antenna works, and then by pilfering all the metallic objects in their village including grandma’s big pan to build an amplifier. 

Though the tale takes place in, presumably, the 1980s, the kids are charmingly innocent not even knowing how to open the ring pull on a can of Pepsi and so excited to try it that they eventually bash a hole in the top with a nail. They are all desperate to leave the village for the bright lights and sophistication of the city but the older Bodi (B. Bayanmunkh) will later suggest sending his son back to the country to learn to be a real Mongolian man riding horses and herding sheep. Meanwhile, the village is in a mood of celebration as a former resident who graduated high school and went on to university is currently running for public office. It’s figuring out the TV problem that leads Bodi to want to become an engineer, certain that when you work hard at something it is possible to succeed. 

Meanwhile, Ideree’s mother Nandin (L. Shinezul) is reluctantly learning to become a contortionist with the circus in the city. Her childhood is less happy than Bodi’s mostly because her mother, formerly a contortionist herself, has encountered some kind of accident and now uses a wheelchair while her father has gone to the US in search of work and a possible cure. Having got her place because another girl was injured, Nandin struggles to get along with her new teammates while secretly reluctant to practice because the circus atmosphere reminds her of happier times. Nevertheless through interacting with the other girls and realising that her melancholy sense of abandonment has been mistaken she eventually rediscovers her calling as a contortionist instructing her son that not everyone is blessed with a natural talent but if you discover you have one it’s your duty to embrace it. 

Despite the twin lessons of his parents, however, young Ideree seems to be struggling. Bodi and Nandin (D. Asardari) are concerned that he seems to have no friends and spends all his time obsessively playing video games even though she is Facetiming someone on her iPhone as she cooks and he is working on his laptop at the breakfast table. At school everyone’s on their phones before the teacher comes in and the streets are filled with people staring at their screens. Running to school every day attempting to escape the gauntlet of older bullies on the bridge, Ideree’s life changes when his computer mouse comes to life and takes the form of a young girl (Michidmaa Tsatsralt) who can manipulate the world around him to silence his nagging parents, despatch his tormentors, and even make him a teacher’s pet but she can’t fix the fact he’s got no friends because friendship is born of the heart’s desire to connect and even the most powerful computers couldn’t forge that. Her advice? Bring love and sunshine. While perhaps criticising the alienation born of increasing digitalisation, Janchivdorj Sengedorj doesn’t exactly advocate a return to the ger even as he comes full circle with the family enjoying a traditional festival but does perhaps suggest that the world works best when people bring the love and the light. We don’t have to believe the stories, Ideree tells us, but he thinks that people start to live a completely different life when they forget childhood dreams and he just might have a point.  


I, the Sunshine streams in the US March 17 – 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Three short trailers (no subtitles)